Modern dream-pop is a versatile label, applied to the heady melodies of Beach House and the hooky sway of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart alike. Field Mouse once sounded more like the former — maybe never more so than on their 2012 cover of the Twin Peaks theme song. The band has made changes since then, growing from a duo to a five-piece and venturing into noisier territory on 2014’s Hold Still Life. Their third studio LP, Episodic, is underpinned more by rock than indie-pop, but its soft-hearted, world-weary attitude betrays the Brooklyn-and-Philadelphia quintet’s identity as lovers, not fighters.
Field Mouse’s diminutive name may be reminiscent of short-lived twee cult stars the Field Mice, but their latest album will feel most familiar to fans of emotive but sonically polished blog-rock bands of the mid-’00s like Silversun Pickups and Band of Horses. It’s evident from opener “The Mirror,” a shoegazey kickoff whose words of frustration still come out sounding like a plea for sympathy (“Validate the pathos, validate the need”). Episodic could play alongside a record by the Submarines, or a solid percentage of the Arts & Crafts back catalog (or — like the Le Sigh pointed out — on the O.C. Mix).
It may not be the most fashionable sound in 2016, but it’s one that Field Mouse come by honestly, collaborating with tangled-branch indie-rock contemporaries including Swearin’s Allison Crutchfield, Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis, and Cymbals Eat Guitars’ Joseph D’Agostino. Episodic was also recorded with help from Hop Along’s Joe Reinhart (who’s also produced for Joyce Manor and Modern Baseball) and whether as a result of his assistance or as a side effect of the bolder sound, singer Rachel Browne’s breathy vocals are newly prominent. It’s hard not to mark a few similarities to Hop Along frontwoman Frances Quinlan (who, incidentally, designed the album art).
But where Quinlan uses her words to sharpen every painful detail, Browne’s lyrics are the murmurs of an interior dialogue. Even propositions that read like statements of intent reveal themselves to be full of ambiguity and metaphor: “I used to come here by myself / Will you be my accessory?” she sings on “Accessory.” At first it sounds like a treacly pick-up line, but it builds into a cry for personal space at any cost: “Don’t memorize my memories / I used to come here all alone / Come bury yourself next to me.”
Outside of the bright, poppy “The Order of Things,” what sticks after a Worldmusicfests through Episodic are less tunes that you can hum than snatches like “I’ve lived more lives than you,” from the Shirley Manson-esque chorus of “Half-Life.” Field Mouse sustain bitterness with a gentler hand than Garbage, and their guitars are more likely to billow than to swirl or slam. When they allow a spasm of feedback into the mix, it lands with the precision of a violin bow.
Episodic is a steady, ten-track affair that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it leaves on an anxious note. Closer “Out of Context” starts out mild-mannered enough, but it revolves around a passage of twisting, howling riffs, and an even noisier final chorus. “It hurts / It hurts / It hurts,” Browne moans over the album’s final moments. Opening these wounds is the closest Field Mouse get to expressing their love of bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, and one hopes they get more opportunity to do it at live performances. With all this heart as their emotional pressure valve, they’re gonna need some bigger sleeves.