Plumb, the fourth album from the duo of Field Music--the Sunderland, England brothers Peter and David Brewis-- was recorded over the course of last year at their new hometown studio on the banks of the river Wear, is yet another time signature-shifting song suite from the group. Its lissome and driving rhythms are stretched taut over the full-length's curt 35-minute running time. Its 15 songs wonderfully dovetail with the duo's early career efforts on 2005's self-titled LP and 2007's Tones of Town.
The Brewis brothers' severely underrated 2010 indie-pop song suite, Field Music (Measure), was shot through with classic English songwriting. Bits of XTC (their standy touchstone), funk, and synth-rock swirled and congealed into quicksand-type pop. That release (and now Plumb) brought the bifurcated aesthetic of the siblings' side projects into the mix. Debut single and album denouement, "(I Keep Thinking About) a New Thing," adroitly combines the off-kilter new wave of David's School of Language with the luminous funk of Peter's The Week That Was. The guitars nearly screech at the outset of the track before setting into a typically joyous Field Music groove. As with many Field Music cuts, the lyrics center on a specific strand of post-modern disaffection in smog-choked cities. The chorus' opening lyrics ring true for their modus operandi: "I don't want to simplify it/ Eloquence is overrated/ A pretty tool is to neuter you." The "new things" they sing about keep their busy minds distracted throughout Plumb.
Opener "Start the Day Right" is a daydream, obviously inspired by the epic classical soundtracks of old Disney films. That idea is quickly transformed as electric guitars and crashing drums lead a new charge. The first three tracks on Plumb are of a piece; they run together in a wonderful sequence. One-minute aside, "It's Okay to Change" is a mechanical slab of prog-rock and synth-pop and "Sorry Again Mate" slides into a ever-ascending beat with a pillowy softness on the vocals that is similar to Measure. A strong resent for city living shows up on "A Prelude to Pilgrim Street," which speaks of "greasy streets starved of sun." The tired protagonist of the tumbling "A New Town" is "stretched like a nylon wire." He's giving up his relationship crutches and moving on the best he can. A Valentine's Day release date is ostensibly a bitter joke from the band to us.
Plumb's undresses its themes of nostalgia, damaged adult relationships, and an all-encompassing befuddlement in epic gestures and quick movements. The blurring arrangements act as both an astringent for the protagonist's bleeding heart and a distraction from the pain. There are so many ideas packed into each song that Field Music are often tagged as being too clever for their own good (a criticism their spiritual brothers XTC had to dodge in the '80s).
Field Music's handiwork here goes beyond the whoosh of instruments. There's real emoting echoing in the dark recesses of "Guillotine," the straight-up love tune "From Hide and Seek to Heartache," or the 40-second a cappella blitzkrieg heard on "How Many Times." Even if these songs sound superhuman in structure, the lyrical themes are simple problems we all face. "Who'll Pay the Bills" mirrors the domestic issues of XTC's "Earn Enough For Us." "So Long Then" deals with loneliness and separation in the form of a lovely piano-led chamber piece.
The playfulness thankfully doesn't experience diminished returns on the rest of the album. The driving synths, bounding guitars, and exploding drums on "Is This the Picture" are distorted in strange and beguiling ways. "How Many More Times?" lasts for 40 seconds, but the brothers' Beach Boys harmonies are beautiful. It needs to be longer. The forlorn strings and piano on "Ce Soir" could soundtrack an epic silent film from the mid-'20s. These Sunderland lads may absolutely lose your interest in one instance (the bass-led "Just Like Everyone Else") and snag your ear with earnest somewhere else (the wistful symphonic popper "From Hide and Seek to Heartbreak"). Plumb is one of the top-shelf albums of 2012 so far because of Field Music's openness to continually tinker with pop music's DNA.