Field Guides are a long-running, ever-evolving Brooklyn collective headed by the songwriting of Benedict Kupstas. This week, they are set to release their latest offering, in the shape of brand new album, This Is Just A Place. The album is a reflection on nature and wonder, a flash back to youthful days watching ants working together and being amazed at how, “everything was full of hidden magic, untold organisms”.
What’s magic about the album is the way in which it explores the natural world, while simultaneously always bringing it back to the human experience. Throughout, the album nature sits in the background and in the music. There are chirping insects in the woozy wonders of Monedegreen, distinctly natural despite their heavy processing, yet for everything natural, so there is something emotional lurking. Here it’s in the lyrical refrain, “at the aquarium, looking through the glass, I saw a part of myself looking back”, almost as if he’s seeking to question humanity, how we desire both to be part of the natural world and yet still somehow remain above it all. Throughout the album, Benedict taps into nature, and seemingly discovers more of himself in everything he sees.
Throughout the album, there’s both a lightness and a lushness to the production, it rarely gets above a hushed calm, yet at times there’s a dizzying array of styles and sounds. Tracks like Year Of The Horse, all gentle slide guitar and melodies could be filed neatly alongside Sufjan Stevens or early Perfume Genius, yet elsewhere there’s touch of droning Stereolab-pop on the aforementioned Mondegreen, while Lucky Star in the AM brings back-and-forth vocals fans of Tugboat Captain will love, the melodies romantic and luxuriant, with a healthy dose of melancholy lingering under the surface.
Possibly the record’s finest two offerings are saved for last. Watching Terns is a perfect-pop song in the mold of Magnetic Fields, all intricate wordplay and easy melodic flourishes, as the swooping and diving of the terns, conjure up his most honest and heartfelt lyrics, “watching terns, taking their turns, taking dives down into the lapping tide, we’ve made our fair share of mistakes, but I don’t care, just give it a chance, again, or at least this once”. If that track hints at Benedict clinging onto something, closing track Guessing At Animals, is the sound of him being dragged onwards, whether he likes it or not. Atop a backing of woozy Shadows-like guitars, Benedict initially struts, meeting girls, moving on with his life, flirting with his finest intent, “she had just moved down from Montreal the day before and it felt like she might be to blame for the aching behind my eyes”. If you’re expecting him to waltz off into the sunset a new man full of the joys of new love and hope, well worry not, as the backing vocals coo repeatedly, “hey Benny boy are you ready?”, all the old doubts creep back into place and his mind drifts back once more, “I’m not sure, not just yet, can this go on, a little more”. That unspoken, “this”, that fatal flaw, that inescapable force that holds him back, that melancholy that he just isn’t sure if he’s quite ready to shake, not just yet anyway. The album seems to end not a full stop, instead at a cross-roads, a moment where we leave Benedict stuck, where his journey goes next, well we’ll just have to wait for the next Field Guides record to find out.
Today Benedict has put together, “a compendium of influences”, featuring the likes of Sparklehorse, Aldous Harding and Daniel Johnston.
1. Mary Margaret O’Hara – “Body’s In Trouble”
Mary Margaret O’Hara is a mad genius. She’s oblivious to—or simply has no interest in—any familiar conventions of song or performance. Her voice is so pure and playful; it burrows deep. Alena and I saw her perform not long ago, and I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed an artist more free or unfettered.
2. Julio Cortázar’s “Axolotl”
I read this story a few times a year and its postmodern twist never gets tired. It’s the inspiration behind the song “Mondegreen” on the album. The axolotl is an animal that lends itself so easily to metaphor: a rare Mexican salamander (now essentially extinct in the wild) which was revered—and consumed—for its regenerative abilities, which bizarrely often never leaves its larval stage, white ghostly flesh and gills like coral…
3. Scout Niblett – “Kiss”
Back when Alena and I first began collaborating, I sent her an email with links to duets—a brazen and, in retrospect, pretty corny come-on. It included at least one of Lee Hazlewood’s duets with Nancy Sinatra, a Serge & Jane romp, and this heart-wrenching tune. Will Oldham’s and Scout Niblett’s voices collide into such a goose-bumpy alchemy.
4. Nick Cave – “Distant Sky”
Try to listen to this song without weeping…
5. Aldous Harding – “What If Birds Don’t Sing They’re Really Screaming”
Aldous Harding is probably my favorite contemporary artist. Her brain…
6. Daniel Johnston – “Peek A Boo”
Daniel was a master at wrenching beauty from pain. He’ll be missed.
7. Stars Like Fleas – “Sop the Juice”
Way back, before Shannon Fields became a good friend and collaborator, his erstwhile band Stars Like Fleas was a profound discovery. They made the sort of paradoxically messy-but-meticulous, pure and provocative art that can’t be heard or witnessed without experiencing what feels like a tectonic shift. While arranging and mixing the song “Year of the Horseshoe” on the new album, my touchtone with Dan [Goodwin, who engineered, mixed, and mastered TIJAP] was the final Stars Like Fleas album, The Ken Burns Effect.
8. Lonnie Holley – “Here I Stand Knocking at Your Door”
Raw and honest, Lonnie Holley’s voice is mesmerizing; his songs are paeans to life’s ecstatic grit.
9. Sparklehorse – “It’s A Wonderful Life”
Such gorgeous melancholy. The bridge of “Fake Calder, Pt. 2” is a bit of an homage to Mark Linkous, an attempt to bend time and bruise the heartstrings the way he did in all his songs. In an interview, Linkous once said:
“I got fed up with people in America thinking that my music is morose and depressing and all that. That song is like a ‘fuck you’ to journalists, or people who are not smart enough to see what it is. But in the end, it was more about how everyday, you should pick up something, no matter how minuscule or microscopic it is, and when you go to bed, you can say I was glad that I was alive to see that. That’s really what it’s about.”
Knowing how profoundly he suffered, that quote is all the more poignant.
10. Yo La Tengo – “Our Way To Fall”
One of our favorite love songs. Ira and Georgia and James have a way of capturing life’s mundane minutia, those seemingly inconsequential moments that become charged with meaning and refracted through memory. And their songs evoke such a sense of place; they pick you up and drop you in the middle of a foggy field, under a bright moon, crickets chirping in 360 degrees.
11. Gastr del Sol – “Blues Subtitled No Sense of Wonder”
The way this album, Camoufleur, unfolds is so sublimely mind-boggling.
12. Arthur Russell – “I Couldn’t Say It to Your Face”
We’ve been covering this song at shows lately, trying to do justice to Arthur’s genius. He is a perennial source of inspiration.
13. Broadcast – “Tears in the Typing Pool”
Even before her tragic death, Trish Keenan’s voice was haunting, as if it was beamed in from some beyond. And her words are so cryptically brilliant.
This Is Just A Place is out September 27th via Whatever’s Clever. Click HERE for more information on Field Guides.