In Vinyl Retentive, A.V. Clubbers share what we find while crate-digging in our own houses.
The Field Mice
"Sensitive" b/w "When Morning Comes To Town"
Sarah Records, 1989
Format: 7-inch single
File Under: A kinder, gentler wimpiness
Key track: "Sensitive"
Some songs are just songs. Others are rallying cries, anthems, archetypes, prima materia, Platonic whaddaycallits. That is: the utter and ideal sonic embodiments of their subject matter. Take, for instance, "Anarchy In The U.K." by The Sex Pistols. It was about anarchy in the U.K, and it was anarchy in the U.K. Or, um, "Push It" by Salt-N-Pepa. It doesn't just ask you to push it–the song pushes you to push it. Hard. Such songs, by their very nature, are usually aimed outward, hand grenades of pure essence tossed around like hot potatoes before they detonate and bathe the masses in their gland-pumping splendor and awesomeness.
And then there's "Sensitive" by The Field Mice.
"Sensitive," like "Anarchy In The U.K." and "Push It," is an archetypal song. "Sensitive," however, does not make you want to jump around and lob Molotov cocktails and tap that ass/have your own ass tapped. It's an entirely ingrown anthem. It's a paean to wetting the bed and crying over spilled milk. It's the sound of wussies declaring–oh so softly–their wussitude to the world. And yet when England's The Field Mice released the single for "Sensitive" in 1989, it probably sounded as revolutionary as Public Enemy or something. In its own small, mousy way, of course.
The Field Mice entered the picture just as the last echoes of England's C86 movement were fading. C86, of course, could only barely be called a movement; the legendary compilation of the same name issued by NME in 1986 meant to mobilize a nation of buzzy, hyperactive guitar-pop bands, but by '89 most of the groups featured on the comp had either broken up or radically changed their sound (with many–like The Soup Dragons, Age Of Chance, Primal Scream, and Fuzzbox–going in the dance-rock direction, to varying degrees of success). One band on the C86 comp, though, stayed mostly true to its roots: The Mighty Lemon Drops, who simply slowed down the mile-a-minute strumming and added a hint of slickness to their neo-psychedelic jangle. 1988 saw the release of The Lemon Drops' signature hit, a syrup-dunked little tune called "Inside Out" (the video of which I used to love watching on Denver's amazing PBS show TeleTunes way back in the day).
The Field Mice must've been huge Lemon Drops fans, because "Sensitive" sounds a whole fuck of a lot like "Inside Out"–the pretty arpeggio, the yawn-like phrasing, the whole Bunnymen-meets-Mary Chain vibe. But where Echo & The Bunnymen oozed sexy mystique and the Jesus & Mary Chain wore leather jackets and turned feedback into switchblades, The Field Mice sang lines like this:
"My feelings are hurt so easily / That is the price I pay / The price that I do pay / To appreciate / The beauty they're killing / The beauty they're busy killing."
"If the sun going down / Can make me cry / Why should I / Not like the way I am?"
That kinda shit makes Morrissey look like Lou Ferrigno. Both the above quotes are from "Sensitive," the song that put The Field Mice on the indie-pop map. The label it was issued on, Sarah Records, was synonymous with delicate, wilting, wallflowery pop; sure, there's plenty of the Mary Chain's lacerating distortion to be found in The Field Mice and lots of other Sarah bands–especially a forgotten little outfit named Eternal, which featured a pre-Slowdive Christian Savill. But Sarah specialized in music that was somehow coyly amateurish and confidently pristine. It's beautiful stuff, really, nestled perfectly between C86's sugar-rush and the nascent shoegaze scene that was about to inject grander sounds and ambitions into Sarah's soda-fizz sweetness. If in doubt about the influence of Sarah Records–and The Field Mice in particular–on shoegaze, just compare the cover of "Sensitive" circa 1989 to that of Ride's third EP, Fall, from a year later:
What makes The Field Mice so humbly radical–even with so many similar-sounding bands overlapping them at the time–is their jarring lack of art or pretense. The Smiths were just wimpy as The Field Mice, of course, but they also hid behind bone-dry wit and a wall of intellectualism (sorry, Mozzer, but Keats and Yeats were never on my side). The Field Mice sang it straight from the gut, as much so as any punk band, only they had no armor of sarcasm, no caustic comebacks to spit at the world. Instead, they wore everything–hearts, fears, tears–on their sleeves. Not with pride, but with some gorgeous sense of grace and resolve.
The B-side of "Sensitive," the overlooked "When Morning Comes To Town," is even gentler and less guarded. Without a scrap of distortion in sight, the song floats like a soap bubble swirling with boy-girl harmonies, acoustic fluff, spectral synths, and vague lyrics about being lonely, depressed, confused, etc. Listen closer, though–and try to remember a time when you were young, completely fucking chest-crushingly in love, and paralyzed by the very thing that ought to be making you leap up and shout at the sky. It's ridiculously easy to get swept up in the song's tender melodrama, and it's downright magical how effortlessly these modest Mice (sorry) conjure feelings you probably forgot you ever had. If that makes you a member of the wuss club, well, sign me up. (Oh wait, I'm a charter member.)
Current whereabouts: After veering toward a downbeat, atmospheric, and more electronic sound–aided by the band's producer Ian Catt, who would make his own small mark on fey pop as a peripheral member of Saint Etienne–The Field Mice morphed into two solid if understated groups: Northern Picture Library and Trembling Blue Stars. The latter gained some attention while on Sub Pop in the early '00s, although the leader of all three acts, Robert Wratten, now seems to be taking it slower, easier, and moodier with The Occasional Keepers–a project that, judging by name alone, might not take itself too terribly seriously.
And just to bring things full circle: An ad hoc outfit named The C86 All Stars got together for some nostalgia-fest in England in 2006, and The Field Mice's "Sensitive"–while not technically a C86 song–was one of the tunes the band performed. And the leader of The All Stars? Dave Newton, guitarist of The Mighty Lemon Drops. Looks like the admiration was mutual.
Availability: Both songs from the "Sensitive" single appear on the really, really great Field Mice anthology, Where'd You Learn To Kiss That Way?, which is still available as a download. The last copy of the original 7-inch that sold on eBay went for $23, and someone's currently asking $47 for it. I paid maybe three bucks for mine. Hmm… I think I need to get into this eBay racket.
And for your further reading pleasure: Below is a list of all The A.V. Club's Vinyl Retentive entries so far. Collect 'em all.