Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Two For The Price Of One

School of Language – Sea From Shore
The Week That Was – The Week That Was (Memphis Industries, 2008)

It would be tremendously gratifying if this intriguing new business model from Peter and David Brewis, the lead creative brains behind Field Music, were to be as fruitful and influential as what has become known as ‘doing a Radiohead’. Despite praise from critics and bloggers, the Brewis brothers recognised that Field Music had failed to become an economical proposition and put the band on extended hiatus shortly after the release of the outstanding ‘Tones of Town’ album last year. I initially had the group unfairly cast as a poor man’s Futureheads, whereas they were actually a much more inventive and maverick proposition than that – their songs crisp and melodic but full of unexpected twists and turns.

Now the brothers have worked on separate projects, both conceptually and musically self-contained whilst sharing some common character traits. Whilst the (possibly temporary) demise of Field Music is something to mourn, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes we now have two examples of that increasingly rare beast – imaginative and enjoyable British indie-rock. By refocusing on writing and studio recording as opposed to fruitless touring, the Brewis brothers are playing to their considerable strengths.

Released this week to a surprisingly appreciative fanfare, Peter Brewis’ contribution to the new Field Music Productions banner as The Week That Was is clearly benefiting from the lion share of the press attention. I was certainly pleasantly surprised by the featured album of the month review in the current edition of Mojo, which should at least give the album’s sales a small boost. What a shame it has emerged too late for the Mercury Music Prize shortlist.

It would seem a pity that in finally coming to these projects a little late in the day, the music press condemn the other contribution, David Brewis’ School of Language, to relative obscurity. Released back in early February, but something I’ve delayed digesting properly until recently, it’s one of 2008’s unassuming treasures (and one that was probably never on the radar of anyone judging this year’s Mercury, much to the shortlist’s detriment).

Brewis largely recorded the album solo, playing a bewildering array of instruments to an impressive degree of proficiency. There are numerous appealing melodies peppered throughout this record, which more than demonstrate Brewis’ pop sensibility, but his wilfully subversive streak usually seems to win out. There’s a skittering, tetchy, nervy and unsettled feeling to many of these tracks – but Brewis manages to turn his short attention span into a virtue.

This is mainly because the album, whilst concise, is meticulously structured and composed. The four parts of the splendid ‘Rockist’ suite, with its consistent underpinning vocal sample and clattering percussion, serve as supportive bookends for the generally more abstract music found across the rest of the album. In between, there are signs of more pastoral leanings on ‘Marine Life’ and ‘Ships’, and an intelligent discipline on ‘Keep Your Water’ which stays subtle and restrained for four minutes until some deranged guitar improvising finally breaks through.

The almost ludicrous arrangements of ‘Disappointment 99’ and ‘This Is No Fun’ are, like much of Field Music’s best work, strongly reminiscent of the quirky drama of XTC, although the latter has interruptions of something more lavish and grand – perhaps Soft Bulletin-era Flaming Lips. It’s clear that Brewis is an acute and clever musician, brimming with ideas and rapidly developing the means by which to express them.

Download Peter Brewis’ contribution as The Week That Was from iTunes, and the bonus track reveals a remarkable similarity in conception and construction to that of his brother. The extra track, The Week That Was Overture, essentially takes small segments from the album’s tracks and rearranges them, with remarkable ease, into a complete whole. There are sounds and thematic preoccupations to which Brewis returns throughout the work, which give it something of a crafted, composed and arranged quality.

It has a slightly different personality from the School of Language album though, the emphasis here being on 80s production techniques, big drums and spiky string arrangements. An obvious reference point is that big Fairfisa/Fairlight Peter Gabriel 3 sound, although my girlfriend also astutely spotted hints of Simple Minds’ big hits (in fact, the intro of ‘Scratch the Surface’ more than closely resembles ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’). It would be unfair to categorise this simply as an 80s throwback though. The percussive textures of ‘It’s All Gone Quiet’ give yet another example of the pervading influence of Reichian minimalism on pop music, whilst the longer tracks clustered around the album’s centre are more languid and dreamy.

Brewis brings a distinctive energy, restlessness and craftsmanship to this finely tuned patchwork. It’s particularly interesting to hear string parts deployed more for their staccato rhythmic effect than for swooning emotional manipulation. Indeed, if it’s possible to find a reason to criticise both Brewis’ work, it’s that there are occasions when they sound a little coldly rational. Fortunately, there are enough infectious tunes on both albums to compensate for this tendency. ‘Scratch The Surface’ and ‘Good Life’ on The Week That Was are especially irresistible.

‘The Week That Was’ is ostensibly a concept album about the media and its insidious role in society. This is hardly a new theme and perhaps also a little clunky, but given the recurring themes of the music (this is much more a song cycle than collection of isolated songs), it makes sense that there is an ideological preoccupation gluing it all together.

What’s so impressive about the Brewis Brothers is the way that a single expression of a good idea is never enough for them. They always seem to be striving to develop every motif and technique and build from them consistent threads that make their work coherent in spite of its inherent quirkiness and unpredictability. I actually think that, of these two records, the School of Language one is marginally more interesting, but the greater immediacy of The Week That Was may make it the more commercially viable. There’s a real ambition and creative mania at work here that separates the Brewises from their contemporaries, most of whom seem to be merely treading water.

Although the Brewises are quite stubborn in emphasising the virtues of studio recordings over live performances, both projects have now been taken into the live arena and next week’s Barfly gig (August 28th) featuring both groups on the same bill promises to be something special.

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