“Too much of a good thing” has taken on a different connotation in the age of digital music, since you can line up the entire discography of a band and listen straight through without having to lift a finger once you click 'play.' On one hand, our attention span and willingness to listen to an album as a singular work has decreased greatly: it's too tempting to cherrypick your favorite songs and make your own playlist or mix CD. On the other hand, it's become easier than ever to listen to music at any time, so giving a new release your proper attention and patience is more likely to happen. Similarly, it's easier to listen to a band's output as one long block, or to skip around for comparing and contrasting. Thus, bands releasing long albums is a different matter now, since if they're listened to in the context of the rest of the band's discography, it all becomes one long mass of music and not so discrete and self contained.
Why do I bring all of this up? Well, it's something I've been thinking a lot about while listening to and writing reviews of Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me and Field Music's Field Music (Measure). Both are long releases, with the former being a triple album and the latter a double. The huge difference is that Joanna Newsom's release suffers from inconsistency and monotonous-ness while Field Music's problem is that it's too much of a good thing. Perhaps most listeners won't see that as a problem, but I do. At least in this case.
2007's Tones Of Town was a tight and focused album, heavily influenced by 60s pop/rock. Tracks like 'A House Is Not A Home' and 'Working To Work' contained hooks that creep up in your subconscious mind at random times, causing you to hum and tap a hard surface while waiting somewhere for something or someone, or to stumble over the lyrics while singing in the shower. Field Music (Measure), then, is the band's double album heavily indebted to 70s music, specifically AOR classic rock. The songs are much more guitar led and often feature crunchy riffs and licks, totally making the listener forget that the band is led by Scottish brothers who look more like impossibly skinny coffee shop baristas than rock stars. 'Each Time Is A New Time' has a grooving guitar and drums interplay that seems more akin to a White Stripes cover of a 70s staple than anything else. Also, the funky, lurching 'Let's Write A Book' kind of reminds me of David Bowie taking a detour in the land of the Fiery Furnaces circa Widow City, their take on 70s music.
That said, the album's second half (or second disc, if you prefer) goes more toward the arty side of 70s music. 'Curves Of The Needle' is a mini-prog rock experiment, alternating near silent piano balladry with restrained full band bursts. 'Precious Plans' sounds like a calm, pastoral interlude on a double album by, say, The Who or Pink Floyd, complete with string section. Speaking of Floyd, their shadow is cast on 'Something Familiar', most evidently at the 2:00 mark, which even has a loping piano line and extended guitar solo (I guess you'd call it a solo) that has David Gilmour written all over it. Album closer 'It's About Time' is the most arty track of all, however, since it starts off sounding like a typically great lead in to a Field Music song but unfortunately then spends most of its 9+ minute length in tedious musique concrete punctuated by string section stabs from time to time and eventually complete silence...and then goes back to musique concrete. It's an unfulfilling and questionable ending to an otherwise consistently enjoyable album, and makes The Beatles's 'Revolution #9' seem like a work of engaging songwriting.
But there's still that matter of “too much of a good thing.” For most listeners, the reason they might like this one less than Tones Of Town will be due more to the shift in sound from taut, memorable 60s style pop/rock tunes to 70s classic rock swagger and arty AOR. For me, though, it's more about the digestibility of a double album, though I do also prefer the poppier style of Tones. Yes, you could argue that most bands can feel like too much of a good thing when you listen to all their albums from end to end, but there's some other X element beyond the stylistic change and too-much-of-a-good-thing-ness that makes me enjoy Field Music (Measure) less than I probably should. It's something about the songs themselves and the way they're played and orchestrated. The arrangements and playing are deceptively complex while sounding uncluttered and simple, so the songs are melodious and enjoyable but not as outright catchy and addictive as Tones Of Town. But even then, I'm not sure that's the X element I feel when I listen to it...But I digress.
Listened to in the context of the rest of their releases in one long block, Field Music (Measure) is a perfectly fine and consistently excellent release. But taken on its own, it's an exhausting listen that leaves me restless a bit of the way into the second half (or second disc, if you prefer). Whatever that X element is that I can't put my finger on doesn't really matter, I suppose, since sometimes you just don't like something as much as you want to. It's how I still feel about Alien 3 after half a dozen viewings over almost as many years.