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14 February, 2004

Review: Field Of Crows (Fish, 2003)

It's arrived!  I said I was going to wait for reviews and audio samples before buying Fish's latest studio album, rather than buying it 'blind' on the release date, as I have in the past.  The fan reviews have been favourable, and it's been encouraging to note that they specifically mention that the aspects of 'Fellini Days' (2001) I disliked haven't been repeated, so I went ahead and ordered a copy from Fish, having not heard the samples after all.

The following review is being written as I listen to the album for the very first time; it'll be interesting to see whether my views change after repeated plays.

'The Field'
A slow-build piece, instantly identifiable as the product of Fish's band. There's a stereotypical 'Scottish' undertone, with a bagpipe-like drone (guitars) and snare drums, which conceptually I don't particularly like, but in practice, it's fine.

'Moving Targets'
Er... I don't want to comment on every song if I don't really have anything to say, and that's the case here! I'll just say I like it. The lyrics seem to have direct relevance to the Washington DC sniper murders of 2003, though I'm sure Fish intended a wider context.

'The Rookie'
Wonderful! Bouncy, unpretentious rock'n'roll, though not simplistic.
Is the title a pun? Crows are solitary birds, so a field of crows would actually be a field of rooks.
The opening lines:
"It's your decision, it's not up to me, and I've seen it all before got a wardrobe full of cheese,..."
WHAT? Consulting the lyrics in the CD booklet, I see it's "... a wardrobe full of T's,..." i.e. T-shirts. A good reference ('been there, done that, bought the T-shirt') but I like my version. ;)
Twenty minutes in, and I haven't stopped grinning yet.

'Zoo Class'
I'd heard a working version of this before, on a recording of the 31/05/03 concert, and hadn't been overwhelmed, as the lyrics seemed repetitive and the arrangement didn't quite have 'it'. Now it does. The guitar intro grabbed me immediately, and I was held all the way to the big ending, with driving guitar accompanied by horns.
An amateur recording of an unfinished song played in a live setting over a 'tinny' PA makes no allowance for the impact of production techniques 'filling out' the sounds of the instruments, plus the effect of stereo.

'The Lost Plot'
The first more downbeat song, but not a typical Fish maudlin ballad; though in a minor key, it's fast-paced and underpinned by a powerful guitar track, which bursts through to lead the outro.
Another title with a double meaning: a field is a plot of land.

This is one of the (several) difference between this and Fish's previous album: whereas 'Fellini Days' sounded rather thin, as if recorded on a tight budget in a home studio with limited multi tracking, there's a considerable depth to the soundscape on 'Field Of Crows', with several layers of instruments interacting in complex rhythms. These are 'big' arrangements; the addition of a brass section to the band has had a significant effect.

'Old Crow'
Great music. Not so sure about the lyrics. This is 'just' a joyful, fun song, which certainly isn't a criticism. This is going to be a highlight of the live set.

Thirty-six minutes: still grinning.

Rather reminiscent of 'Sunsets On Empire' (1997). This is the other song I'd already heard (a working version played live, anyway), and I'm glad that first impression wasn't confirmed. In that setting, the lyrics had seemed repetitive, but in the context of the album, that's to leave room for the rich production and layered instrumentation; over-complex lyrics would be wasted.

'Exit Wound'
Okay; full-on Fish melancholia. The late-night jazz club feel is a pleasant rest from the foregoing high-energy songs.

'Innocent Party'
Back to the driving rock songs, though this takes a slightly darker tone than earlier tracks.

'Shoot The Craw'
The start is very similar to 'Pipeline' from 'Suits' (1993), but develops into another standard Fish ballad - not bad, but nothing new; I tend to find these songs interchangeable, and this could have been from any of his solo albums.

'Scattering Crows'
Another ballad. This has emerged as a curiously, even disappointingly 'front-loaded' album. Again, it's a nice enough song, and I'm sure I'll come to like it in its own right, but having been built up by the energetic, celebratory tone of the first two-thirds of the album, I'd hoped it would close with a bang. And if you've already heard the album: not that bang!

That's it. Time to play it again. I presume my comments convey the overall message that I really like 'Field Of Crows'. It's only February, but I may have discovered my 'album of 2004'.

Most of the reviews I've read to date have said this is a return to form, likening the album to Fish's solo debut, 'Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors' (1989). In a sense that's correct, having recaptured the catchy tunes and powerful delivery of those songs, but I'd better stress that 'Field Of Crows' isn't particularly similar to 'Vigil...'. Much as I love that album, it does struggle under the weight of Fish's neo-prog background. 'Field Of Crows' is not a prog album. His style has moved on a long way from 1991 (and wandered a bit on the way...), and to quote Fish himself, he's found the 'groove'.

The album receives a general retail release in May, but has been available directly from Fish's own website since December (hence the official copyright date of 2003 despite it not being in the shops until five months into 2004!). I'd always recommend buying direct from Fish anyway, as this provides the greatest financial benefit to him, and he's in a position where that does matter. If added incentive is required, the standard retail version will be sold with a 12-page black & white booklet, whereas that sold via the website and concerts contains a full colour booklet of 24 pages.

Speaking of the artwork, Mark Wilkinson's van Gogh-style painting of Fish in a cornfield (yes, it's a painting, not a digitally-modified photo!) is well-executed and attractive, but the portrayal of Fish as if from 'The Matrix', in black leather and shades, somehow seems trite, like a movie tie-in released just that little bit after the zeitgeist has passed.

NP: Guess ;)


I have tried to buy the CD a couple of times but on each occasion the shops in Bristol (Virgin/HMV) have not had any copies.
All reviews I have seen so far have convinced me that I MUST get this album.
(I notice Tull's name at the bottom of your web page - As Passion Play is a particular favourite of mine - I bought the cassette when it first came out in 1973 and so I shall look at those pages in due course).

Posted by Geoff Larsen at June 26, 2004 06:20 PM

As I mentioned in the review, I'd strongly recommend buying it direct from Fish by mail order, not from a high-street retailer, both because the mail order edition has superior packaging and because the retailer's cut of the cover price goes directly to Fish if one buys from his web store - not a trivial consideration if one wants him to keep making great music!

Posted by NRT at June 26, 2004 08:22 PM
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