Tuesday, 14 September 2010

All Of Your Thoughts *Are* In Tone In Town

Three charming young Mackems. I presume they're charming - I've never met them. Can't imagine them being divas though. Do they look like divas? What do moderately unsuccessful indie rock divas look like?

Is it a bit naval-gazing to write a blog post based on the album that gave your blog its name? Um, probably. Well, whatever. It's naval-gazing time.

It sometimes feels like call centres have invaded every single pore of our lives. Maybe it's just because the rise in social networking, the Internet and instant communication has meant it's a lot easier to vent frustrations, and generally when we do, it's a sight louder too. And god knows call centres make enough people want to vent, often enough. Anyway, there seem to be two different types of call centre – the first, the outsourced, is generally somewhere on the Indian Subcontinent, and company has gone there because it fills one important criteria: cost. This isn't meant as a judgement on that, I should probably add. Anyhow, if they've not outsourced, the chances are you'll be speaking to someone from that forgotten part of England known as “the North East”. Far from the “here be monsters” (unless you're stuck in the Bigg Market of a Saturday night) such far-flung corners generally provoke, apparently it's because the north eastern accents, be they Geordie, Mackem, Smoggie, or whatever the hell else they call themselves, tend to sound friendly, jovial, sympathetic, and most importantly persuasive. If you can sooth the temper of someone calling a call centre and try to put doubt in my mind, I guess you win the customer service thing.

How does this link to anything? Aha, this is where the fact I've put at least a little thought into a blogpost for the first time shows. Field Music, for those not in the know, are a pair of brothers (and occasional support musicians/temporary members), from Sunderland, right in the heart of persuasive-accent land. They emerged during a glut of vaguely angular bands, and in terms of sales sit in the shadows of peers like the Futureheads and Maximo Park. But as far as critical acclaim goes, Field Music have always been right up there, and for me, their peak is their excellent second album, Tones of Town. You may have heard of it. You probably should recognise the phrase from somewhere not a million miles from here. In any case, the Brewis brothers that form the backbone of Field Music have soft Mackem accents, and, gentle and persuasive, they're the perfect kind to lull me, Derren Brown-victim style, into really buying into a message. Especially when it's one I could probably relate to even if Tom Waits were singing it in maximum gruff mode.

The interesting thing about Tones of Town is, for me, the sort of suite of four songs in the middle of the album. Maybe it wasn't intended as a suite, but while the whole album generally deals with issues of the banality, the routine and the apathy you find when embarking on the first few years of adult life – your first job, the drudgery of getting home after annoying commutes and the like – tracks 4 through 7 really nail the feeling.

Music's generally burrowed a snug warren in my heart because it depicts moments I relate to. I imagine it's the same for a lot of you. And it's because of that, that Tones of Town abides so well – it continues to revisit the themes we never escape, and it does it with such deftness of lyric, melody, and most importantly, rhythm, that it's completely irresistible. Take “Kingston”, for example. It's under two minutes, but the ornate strings and drums which eschew the first of the bar to wobble slightly merely set a scene for an eerily accurate description of not seeing your friends enough, because they live not too close or too far away to warrant the effort. The protagonist fails to maintain a friendship, asking “the tube is fast, the distance small – so why should I come?”. The whole song sounds a bit withdrawn, he works hard, gets paid, and it makes no difference to anything, and then the urge to visit a friend passes, and anyway he finds that “you haven't the time”.

Hardly overwrought, flowery prose is it? But it doesn't need to be – a few words here and there, and it's a universal feeling – I have a friend a couple of miles away, why haven't I visited them? And I can say, oh you know, this and that, there hasn't been chance. Absolute bollocks, and the character in the song knows this, knows how ridiculous it all is.

“A House Is Not A Home” sums up the soullessness of living on your own about fifteen times within the one song, observing things that just aren't the same as being somewhere chock full of characters. Tinkling pianos, occasionally emphasised bars, and voice reminding you that “on your own, you only learn to like what you know” - well, of course you do. But you don't always realise that, do you? And maybe “you recognise the smell”, but again, “a house becomes hotel when you make it what you want to”. Yes! Somewhere that has entirely your own personality, it's as creepy as the hotel room that has none of your own personality.

And what about “Working to Work”? Again, it's a rather simple idea, and one done to death by a million bands, mostly pretty crap, but it's not crap here. Jerky guitars, stop-start rhythms again perfectly sitting alongside the lyrics. What are they suggesting? Among other things, that “Leisure is useless/When nothing is easy/When you're working to work”, and that you're “Taken to task/To spend another day going home and/Diving to drown/I'm coming up for air”. It's not really about the time you're losing during the days, though we're all aware of that, it's the effect is has on your life outside work. You're being taken to task, probably in a pretty remedial admin job, and it just leaves you completely unstimulated when you get home, where slumping in front of the telly feels like coming up for air, or when your leisure activities, sports or dancing or whatever just feel like you're putting off the inevitability of work next day.

It's “In Context” that brings these three themes together, marrying them all with all the disconnection of being stuck in that twentysomething rut. And yeah, it's pointing out “you're a long way from home/all of the thoughts you had were not your own”. A simple plucked guitar and off-kilter rhythm rumbles through the song – it's not quite hypnotic, but it's a little bit relentless. The song itself almost sounds like a love song to someone – someone not really alluded to – but the protagonist couldn't quite fall in love because life, mistakes, the feeling of not quite 'getting' their lifestyle, just sort of got in the way.

Music's a personal thing. I can sit back and analyse how good the music is – and it is, Field Music are a bit of a thinking man's band but there's plenty of melody and plenty of “hmm, interesting” moments to take you by surprise on each listen. But...that's missing the point. I've picked the middle third of an album alone here to show how the combination of music and lyrics feel like they're echoing part of my existence, and as wanky as that sounds, that's the appeal of music. Yes, I've felt slightly discombobulated in houses I've moved into – A House Is Not A Home knows how I feel. Yes, I've seen friendships kind of drift into nothingness because I don't see friends for months on end even though they live in the same city – but the protagonist from Kingston's been there too. Yes, I've felt stifled by shite jobs I've had in the past that've resulted in nothing really cutting it as escapism – Working to Work pretty much sums it up for me. And yes, it's all come together to stop me really...settling into life at times, just like it says during In Context. But what's really the key for me is that they feel like universal themes. I'm almost dead certain they are. We've all been in similar positions, and the feeling we have isn't that of tearing our hair out, or collapsing in floods of tears necessarily. It's the sort of vague feeling of impotence – the discontentment from just looking around and asking “is this it?” But not in such a way that it makes us angry, more that it makes us sigh. And that's the feeling this captures for me, and it's why you should probably embrace this album – especially those middle four tracks – into your life.


  1. Two FACTS:

    1. The 'off kilter rhythm' in In Context is a drum loop played backwards.

    2. Peter Brewis was the Futureheads original drummer. He and Barry Hyde had 'musical differences' but he co-wrote quite lot of early material.

    For what it's worth, 'She Can Do What She Wants' is probably my favourite song on this album. I think it's wonderful. Stand out wonderful on a magnificant album.

  2. Aye, She Can Do What She Wants is pretty damn nifty too - again, it's the kind of everyday feeling of the guy facepalming himself and chastising himself for being stupid and then getting upset over the whole she-bang.