The Field Mice / Where'd You Learn to Kiss That Way? / Shinkansen

AUDIO: Willow

People who already have this compilation album, the only Field Mice release currently in print, will most likely buy anything on sight that bears the Sarah Records stamp. They will pay twenty dollars for a Boyracer 7", and spend hours on E-Bay looking for anything by Another Sunny Day. I am one such fanatic, and my passion for the Sarah label began, quite belatedly, with my purchase of this double CD, released only three years ago by Sarah's spinoff label Shinkansen. Formed by Bobby Wratten, Mark Dobson, Michael Hiscock, Harvey Williams and Annemari Davis in 1988, the Field Mice lasted only three years. Where'd You Learn to Kiss that Way? proves that they managed to record at least 36 fabulous songs during this short time.

While Field Mice songs have certainly made their way into the Twee and Indie Pop Hall of Fame, their sensitive, melancholy guitar pop seems to have been terribly shortchanged by the press. Comparisons, when made, seem to be with Blueboy, the Orchids or the Sugargliders -- all fellow Sarah bands, but nothing like the Field Mice. Like Harvey Williams' solo material, the charms of these "sister" bands are almost purely musical: they are great bands with good taste, great melodies and a lot of talent. Other Sarah bands, like Brighter, were wonderful, more acoustic variations of the New Order sound. They were great too, and I eat em up, but they are nothing like the Field Mice. And who are the Field Mice? A group whose greatness comes from the whole band, but whose immortality rests on the songwriting talents of Bobby Wratten.

Now the leader of the Trembling Blue Stars, Bobby Wratten is one of the most honest relationship chroniclers that the world of popular music has known. He is in no way guilty of "twee pop" crimes; when he sings like a good friend to the song's subject ("If you need someone to tell you/Everything is gonna be all right/I can do that"), it is not feigned sweetness but the fact that people in relationships and friendships normally have such moments of shared kindness. When Wratten sings about a breakup (as he does throughout the Trembling Blue Stars' terribly sad Her Handwriting), his willingness and ability to chronicle moments "when everything is okay" only intensifies appreciation for his talents. Like John Lennon, Neil Young and (quite often) Kind of Like Spitting's Ben Barnett, Wratten's work gives the appearance of inner thoughts wrapped tightly into well-constructed melodies. Unlike these major figures, though, his subject matter never seems calculated. When Wratten writes a string of breakup songs, it's not to have a niche, or because he does it well, but because it's there, before him. The routine glance between cashier and bagger could make it into one of his songs, as long as the mundane moment is honestly captured and the music surrounding the moment is good enough to be enjoyed without his words.

The music employed by the Field Mice is mostly guitar pop. The band added more keyboard tinkerings as they progressed, and as Harvey added more of his own musical input. It's all very good; the opening to "Canada" is among the bounciest tunes in my personal collection. Still, the music is almost always second fiddle to the lyrics. Guitars are there to add textures of sadness, while the voices of Bobby or Annemari, great instruments in themselves, add extra layers to bring out the fragility and comfort contained in any naked thought shared by two humans.

It is the words that make the Field Mice an absolute must-have for music fans, or for anyone who likes art that says the things we'd like to hear or convey to another. "Willow", perhaps my favorite slow song of all time, has Wratten's then-girlfriend Annemari singing lyrics that Bobby addressed to his previous girlfriend: "I miss this other more than/More than I used to miss you/I'm sorry if my being/My being honest hurts you/Don't you go thinking/I never did love you/Don't you go thinking such a thing". While I find "Willow" comforting, Wratten's lyrics are seldom happy. Still, there's a real joy in seeing something so true and honest and raw. I felt that way when I heard John Lennon's "Mother", and when I heard Nirvana's "All Apologies", but never on such a regular basis as with Bobby Wratten's material. It is a shame that the impact of his first band, and the other great bands that have followed, has been limited to indie pop circles. Do yourself a favor and ignore the "twee" tag that's been slapped on them. In Where'd You Learn to Kiss That Way?, the Field Mice have answered -- in spades -- John Lennon's plea to "gimme some truth".

-- Theodore Defosse

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