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Field Music, ‘Field Music’ (Memphis Industries)

The Northeast England port town of Sunderland got its first punk-rock anthem in 1987, the Toy Dolls’ highly ironic “Nowt Can Compare to Sunderland Fine Fare.” The timing was auspicious. Released roughly 600 years after the city’s life-giving shipyards opened and exactly one year before they closed, the song ushered in a decline that’s turned Sunderland into a ripe little indie-rock town, complete with dying industry, ascendant tech sector, small university, and of course, rain. It’s got an acclaimed new-wave band (the Futureheads), and a bunch of mood-noodling art-pop acts, most notably Field Music, the perfect second-best band for a town whose last ship has long since sailed.

Frontman Peter Brewis was the original drummer in the Futureheads, and the two bands share more than nightlife options. Both like jump-stutter tempos, though the ‘Heads use their jagged edges to slice into what Pere Ubu once called “the empty spaces of this life,” while their fellow townsmen turn inward, adding slippery lyrical ambivalence to knotty orchestral pop that’s at once damaged and gorgeous. “The whole thing’s on the brink of nothing at all / It just doesn’t work / So I might change my dress / And I might feel the same way,” they sing against the hobbled jangle of “Pieces,” rendering the stuff they hide far more enticing than what they disclose. Whenever they drop a line like “Oh, guilt is a fine thing,” there’s a weepy cello or stippled piano to kick them to the next emotion, which is usually more alienated than the first.

That every song could be a chopped and screwed remix of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” only deepens this mix of familiar sounds and difficult moods. Few bands this side of Wilco float along so easily on little more than diagonally rendered elegiac noises and severe anxiety disorder; “Like When You Meet Someone Else” goes through half a dozen melody swings and a few time signatures just to evoke maybe getting out of bed. A song called “Got to Get the Nerve” is followed by one called “Got to Write a Letter,” pumping go-nowhere ambiguity until the relatively mild release of the barely requited album-ending love song, “You’re So Pretty,” dawns like sweet salvation in a knit sweater. It leaves us wide open for one more letdown by the ruined oceanfront.

See also: Various Artists, The Memphis Family Album, Vol. II (Memphis Industries, 2006)

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Tags: Albums