Where Is My Mind?
Trying to Remember the New Field Music

The thing about being an obsessive fan of something like Doctor Who is that you notice things the casual viewer may not. While the average person probably only knows Matt Smith, David Tennant and Tom Baker, the more seasoned viewer can tell you which guest actors appeared in which episodes. For instance, did you know that second Doctor Patrick Troughton’s son David has played three different roles in the series, once in the ‘60s, once in the ‘70s and once in 2008? It’s true.

Doctor Who has been on the air for so long that some terrific actors have, like David Troughton, made repeat performances, playing different characters. And after a while of combing through the old series, you start to recognize them as they pop up. Michael Wisher played six different parts between 1970 and 1975, most notably the original Davros, creator of the Daleks. Philip Madoc played four memorable roles, perhaps none more so than Solon in The Brain of Morbius. These are actors who don’t get the limelight reserved for the Doctor and his companions, but without whom, the show would suffer immeasurably.

Peter Halliday was one of those. Now, Halliday had a long career outside of my favorite long-running British sci-fi show, mostly on television, although he was in The Remains of the Day. But it’s his Doctor Who work that I will remember him for. Aside from his awesome voce work, he played four parts on the series, the first in 1968 and the last in 1988. That’s him as the Renaissance-era soldier Tom Baker outwits in City of Death. There he is as Pletrac, one of the more diplomatic aliens in Carnival of Monsters. And there he is in Remembrance of the Daleks, as a blind vicar who stands by as Sylvester McCoy buries the Hand of Omega.

But I will best remember him as the bumbling, hilarious Packer in the 1968 Patrick Troughton adventure The Invasion. Working against the amazing Kevin Stoney, Halliday displayed perfect comic timing, bringing a spry lightness to a part that could have been a simple lunkhead. Halliday and Stoney turned “Packer!” into a Who fan catchphrase, and practically stole the show out from under Troughton – not an easy thing to do.

Peter Halliday died last week at the age of 87. There won’t be many celebrity obituaries for him, but I wanted to express my appreciation for the contribution he made to one of my favorite shows. Those roles, particularly Packer, just would not have worked as well with another actor playing them. So thanks, Peter. Rest in peace.

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This may seem like a no-brainer thing to say, but I have a really good musical memory.

If I hear a song, even once, chances are good that I will remember it. If I don’t, it’s usually because the song bores me, and I found nothing to latch onto. It’s very rare that I will hear something I like a great deal, and then not be able to remember it later.

But for some reason, that’s the predicament I’m in with Field Music. They’re a progressive pop band led by brothers Peter and David Brewis, with four albums to their name. I’ve liked every one of them. No, even better – every one of them has left my jaw on the floor. The Brewis brothers write and play music of startling complexity, yet with a firm commitment to melody and lush orchestration. You’d think they would be among my favorites. And while the records are playing, you’d be right.

When the music stops, however, Field Music has an uncanny way of simply leaving my head. A case in point: in 2009, the band released their second self-titled album (and third overall), which fans call Measure. It’s completely brilliant. Twenty songs, 70 minutes, intense yet sweet, with more than a few hints of Yes for good… um, measure. Straight up my street. And yet, I’m looking at the track listing now, and I can’t remember how a single one of these songs go. Play them for me again, and I’ll nod and agree about how good they are. But I never reviewed Measure, because I just couldn’t hang on to it, musically speaking.

I have no idea how the Brewis brothers managed this, or if this is something that’s happening to other people. But it’s definitely happening again with the band’s fourth album, Plumb. There’s nothing wrong with this album at all. Peter and David played nearly every instrument on here, but you’d think you’re listening to a full band with an uncommon grasp of rhythm. Plumb is 15 tracks in nearly 36 minutes, and it flows like a single song, a proggy suite of blissful melodies and odd time signatures. It is, frankly, great stuff.

Except I’ve heard it three times now, and I just don’t remember it at all. Nothing is sticking. I know the hook melody of “Sorry Again, Mate” has made me smile every time it comes up, but I couldn’t hum it for you. “Choosing Sides” is four minutes of essentially the same tricky riff, with variations laid on top, and even though I’ve basically heard that riff for 12 minutes, I don’t recall it. This may be the slipperiest music I’ve ever encountered, and it’s frustrating, because I want to give this a glowing, top-notch review. But now I’m trying to figure out if it’s me, or if these songs just aren’t that memorable.

On occasion, the complexity works against this record, muddying what could be soaring choruses. I like “Who’ll Pay the Bills,” for instance – it leaps from 7/8 to 4/4 nimbly, and it has a nifty descending melodic line in the chorus, and man, those drums are wonderful. But it’s not a song you’re going to be humming for days. In fact, I just heard it not more than five minutes ago, and I don’t think I could tell you how it goes. Some of this album, like “So Long Then,” is loping and low-key, too, which may not take root in the brain as well as the higher-energy tracks.

But on balance, I think it’s just me. Field Music is a band I should absolutely love, and while their records are blaring from my speakers, I absolutely do. Plumb is another superb album, progressive pop of the highest order. I’m near the end of the record now – the lovely a cappella piece “How Many More Times” has just given way to the orchestrated “Ce Soir,” and it’s tremendous. I know when this is over in a few minutes, it’s going to float away, and I won’t be able to hold on to it, and that makes me indescribably sad. If you can remember this album better than I can, I envy you, because it’s great.

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Now, Shearwater? Shearwater is a band I remember.

I first heard them in 2008, midway through their Island Trilogy – Palo Santo, Rook and The Golden Archipelago – on a recommendation from longtime correspondent Lucas Beeley. (His brother Steve may have been involved as well.) One minute into Rook, and I was hooked for life. Shearwater makes glorious, dramatic, sweeping music. You could call it rock – they use the same instruments as a rock band – but somehow, it’s more than that. It’s bigger and older and more epic. And on top of all that is the supple, slightly odd, almost ghostly voice of Jonathan Meiburg, taking the material to new places with every syllable.

In retrospect, you could hear the band straining against the more placid tones of the Island Trilogy throughout Archipelago, the loudest of the three. But if you expected Shearwater to go from there to the jagged and earthy music they’ve made on their new one, Animal Joy, well, you’re better at this than me. This record is a surprise, but a wonderful one. It crackles with life, it prowls about its cage with ferocity and confidence. It’s the band’s finest work, at least partially because it takes your idea of what a Shearwater album can be and gives it a good shove.

It’s possible they’ve rocked harder than they do on “Breaking the Yearlings,” but that song’s jagged, stomping beat sounds like fresh energy to these ears. The raw organ sounds only add to the intensity. Meiburg doesn’t try to outdo the music – he just sings the way he always does on top of it, glistening falsetto and all, and it works beautifully. Similarly, Shearwater may have more expansive songs than “You As You Were,” but you’d be hard-pressed to name them while it’s playing. The repeated piano notes, the spine-tingling melody, the damn-the-torpedoes sweep of the thing – it’s just terrific.

The six-minute “Insolence,” at track five, is your first chance to catch your breath. It’s sparse and creepy, with a rolling drum line that occasionally comes out of nowhere. This song gets huge too, Meiburg singing his heart out over big, open chords. Right after this mini-epic is “Immaculate,” a two-minute garage rocker. Yes, I’m serious. Fast, explosive, completely unexpected. But that’s Animal Joy all over. I’m a fan of this band, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard them sound this alive.

The album ends with two of its prettiest tracks. The simple-yet-effective “Believing Makes It Easy” has one of those melodies you’re going to carry around with you for a while, and closer “Star of the Age” is one of Meiburg’s finest moments, an earthy anthem that reaches for the skies. There isn’t a track on Animal Joy that doesn’t move me, and this one wraps it all up perfectly.

If you’re a fan of this band, you’re going to want to hear this, since it subtly redefines them without losing their essence. If you’re new to them, you’re definitely going to want to hear this, because it’s the perfect introduction to where this band is, and where they’re heading. Animal Joy is an absolute stunner, a tremendous effort from a tremendous band.

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Next week, who knows? Be here in seven days to find out. In the meantime, watch this trailer for Keane’s just-announced fourth album, Strangeland, out May 8 on these shores. Pretty excited. Plus, that means that Keane and Rufus Wainwright are releasing new albums on the same day. Orchestral pop overload!

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See you in line Tuesday morning.