How Sensitive: The Field Mice, Reissued
reviewed by dave heaton
For those of us who weren't paying attention at the time, it's tempting to use 'Sarah Records' as a descriptive term, not just a historical one. Sure the U.K. pop label with an ever-growing cult following had a sound of its own during its existence (from 1988 to 1996), but that sound wasn't as monolithic as it seems. For that matter, the music of The Field Mice, perhaps the biggest-selling Sarah band, wasn't as uniform as it may seem to some now, either. With the music of The Field Mice and its offspring (Northern Picture Library and Trembling Blue Stars), it's tempting to over-rely on words like gentle, melancholy, wistful and, that most over-used of pejoratives, twee. Even a cursory look through reviews of the band's work reveals this; a quick Internet search yields instant rewards, like a review of the 1998 Field Mice retrospective Where'd You Learn to Kiss That Way? which describes them as "even more fey than Belle & Sebastian."
Actually listen to the Field Mice's music, though, and you'll get hear a more complicated band. You'll hear rough rock guitars where you expect gentle ones; hear sublime dance beats where you're expecting more folksy sounds; hear bold lyrics where you expect timid ones. LTM Records' comprehensive new Field Mice reissues - re-releases of each album, augmented with singles, compilation cuts and outtakes - offer the perfect opportunity for newcomers to hear what the band was really all about, and how good they really were, while old fans get nicely packaged CD versions of beloved music.
If melancholy is an unfair descriptor of Field Mice lyrics, sensitive is a far better one. The 1989 single "Sensitive", presented here as one of the additions to their debut album Snowball, is an anthemic statement of purpose in that regard, a defense of feeling so much, in life and in music, and a comment on the way sensitivity is criticized, or punished even. "If the sun going down can make me cry why should I hide the way I feel"? Ragged guitars and pounding drums mark the fierce intent behind the duo's song; that boldness is echoed in singer Bobby Wratten's voice, even as its softness makes the sensitivity tangible even outside of the words.
That combination of boldness and sensitivity marks the Field Mice's music for me, though the boldness takes different musical forms between the three albums - Snowball (1989), Skywriting (1990) and For Keeps (1991).
Of these albums, Snowball may most closely represent the style of music that many mean when they're referring to Sarah Records. Opening with the lovely "Let's Kiss and Make Up" (later covered by Saint Etienne), the album contains gorgeous melodies, Byrds-ish guitars (you know, "jangly") and an overall low-key tone that echoes both dreams and quiet moments of the afternoon. That atmosphere, together with the precise and personal lyrics about love, made songs as disparate as the late-night farewell "The End of the Affair" and the more rollicking come-on "Everything About You" feel really intimate, and powerful in the way that the feelings come through as real.
The second Field Mice album, Skywriting, is here a two-disc set, with the So Said Kay ep, the Autumn Store 7"s, and a handful of outtakes from around the same time. The Autumn Store singles are much in the vein of Snowball, and just as good. I'm particularly fond of the exquisitely sad "Anyone Else Isn't You."
On Skywriting, the band retained its unique style while pushing further in the direction of dance music. This is clear from the first moments of the first track. "Triangle" is a 9-minute, heavily electronic track that sounds like a bridge built between Snowball and outright club music. The guitars are still heavy in the mix, though; in some ways they stand out more on Skywriting than ever, even when they're serving to complement a dance track like "Triangle." It's that rare guitar album that's also a dance album, also a sensitive pop album. The second song, the rolling pop tune "Canada," is carried along by its shimmering guitars. The song's 'he loves her, she lives someone else' tale is given a lightness of tone through its guitars, even as the lyrics are much more serious. That's the feeling of much of Skywriting, actually; the dance edge and especially lively guitars make the album breezy and alive, while the lyrics are emotionally deep and complicated.
That lightness is left behind, or transformed into a different mood, on So Said Kay the 1990 EP released a few months after Skywriting which forms the second half of disc one of the Skywriting reissue. Here is a point in the Field Mice's career where melancholy shouldn't be avoided as a descriptive term, as it is probably the best one. "To a decision she's come / she has decided to leave," Bobby Wratten sings languidly on the beautiful, sad opening song "Landmark." The next song "Quicksilver" is perhaps even more beautiful, with a strange edge to the atmosphere and and incalculable amount of longing in Wratten's hope to see a departed loved one again. The EP's three other songs are just as memorable, ending with the title track, a perfect, sad love ballad.
Without getting too much into the history of the band and its breakup - that's been documented plenty of places before - the 1991 album For Keeps represented a filling out of the band, to 5 members, and eventually lead to the group's end. To be honest, the Field Mice's sound always felt full, bigger than just the work of two or three people. That said, the additional members did add to For Keeps often-expansive, sophisticated pop sound. Annemari Davis sings lead on the opening track, the stirring "Five Moments", and sings background throughout. The dance elements of Skywriting have disappeared; instead For Keeps is like a more highly textured version of "typical" Field Mice songs. At times it gets close to feeling overblown, especially considering how forceful even the simplest of some of their earlier songs were, but even in the most dramatic moments it feels really special. It's one more rewarding album filled with songs that sound lovely and also strip human emotions down to their essence, taking what people feel and vividly capturing them in song.
Every out-of-print album deserves a reissue, I think, but that's especially so with a band that's as unique as The Field Mice. These reissues are loving tributes to a band that made pop music which was meaningful, riveting and complicated, and that hit close to the heart.