It’s often said that the best kind of cover versions are those which make you forget the song was ever done by anyone else. Jimi Hendrix takes ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and makes you think he wrote it; Johnny Cash takes Trent Reznor’s ‘Hurt’ and plays it like it was a Johnny Cash song all along. The problem with applying this logic to Field Music’s Play….. is that, in the wake of this year’s Mercury-nominated Plumb, not even Field Music seem sure any more what “a Field Music song” is.
Such was the nature of that album, a manic whistle-stop tour through the minds and influences of the Brewis brothers, that you could take any one of its fifteen tracks and come away with fifteen different ideas of what kind of band Field Music are. Plumb picked up so many batons and discarded them so quickly that it was in itself reminiscent of an indulgent covers EP, so it comes as little surprise that Play… is equally hard to pin down.
Given how successful Plumb was in both creative and critical terms (see the aforementioned – and long overdue – Mercury nomination), it’s hard to begrudge Field Music following it up with an actual indulgent covers EP, though “indulgent” barely begins to describe a CD containing takes on two Pet Shop Boys tracks. Those two – ‘Please’, from the Boys’ debut album of the same name, and ‘Rent‘ from its follow-up Actually – in fairness, turn out to be highlights here. The latter in particular, with its spoken word section and stomping percussion, sounds something like new ground for Field Music, and at least gives this project the momentary purpose of allowing the band to spread their creative wings away from the commercial constraints (if such things ever bothered Field Music) of an LP proper.
While Field Music take on bona fide legends of rock – The Beatles, Syd Barrett, and John Cale among them – they are creative enough with their choices of songs to get away with it. They are forgiven when they take a misstep: ‘Don’t Pass Me By’, a mediocre Ringo number from The White Album, represents a low point (through no fault of their own, for the most part), but if Field Music are going to drop the ball on a Beatles track, we can at least be thankful that it’s a Ringo. Meanwhile, anyone who has seen John Cale’s live set recently will attest that the band’s take on ‘Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend’ is a fantastic approximation of how the man himself would probably play it had he wrote it today rather than 40 years ago, and is the moment on Play….. when you finally feel they have made a song their own.
Given that this isn’t a mainstream release – it is receiving a limited, 1000-copy edition, available only through the band’s website – Play….. really can’t be viewed in any other terms than as an indulgence of a band that thoroughly deserve to indulge themselves for a while. It is a treat for the fans, and a love-letter to the Brewis’ influences, to music itself. When David Brewis closes the EP with Neil Tennant’s chorus “I love you, you pay my rent”, I couldn’t help think of an interview the brothers gave to the Guardian earlier this year in which Peter claimed that the band “sometimes earn five grand a year”, and imagine that this wasn’t directed at another human being, but at his chosen profession. Whether the sentiment rings true or not, the best we can hope is that Field Music keep finding ways to make music pay their rent.