Where to Start
by Kurt Wildermuth
Where do you start with the Nields? Let's say that for twenty years you've wanted to write about the Nields, to help spread the word about their music but also to solidify your sense of why that music is so compelling, so worth your time. Where do you start?
You could start copyeditorially. For example: There once was an indie folk-pop-rock band from New England called the Nields, and their name involved a grammatical joke. The band's principal members were the sisters Nerissa and Katryna Nields. Nerissa's husband, David, changed his last name from Jones to Nields and played guitar in the band. They called themselves the Nields.
No matter how many people named Nields form a group, however, they collectively aren't the Nields. To be the Nields, they would each need to be named Nield. An "s" makes Nield plural. Since in reality they are each named Nields, together they are the Nieldses, "es" making Nields plural. The Nieldses might hang out with the Robertses and keep up with the Joneses. (If Nerissa, Katrina, and David had all been named Jones, they'd probably have named themselves the Jones.)
Of course, you can understand why a band wouldn't want to go by the unwieldy name of the Nieldses. Why would they want to go by the ungrammatical name of the Nields? It's funny! A group of indie folk-pop-rock New England young people follow the lead of, say, the Osmonds, who were brothers, or the Ramones, who weren't.
But in this case having a cool-or-at-least-coolish-sounding name means embracing a grammatical error. In this way the Nields resemble the long-defunct indie pop band Let's Active, whose name was meant to convey a faulty translation. Or they might be distant cousins to Led Zeppelin, who embraced the power of a spelling error because it looked, you know, heavier.
So much for copyediting. Alternatively, you could start with the Nields personally. For example: For a couple years in the early '90s I lived in the same cozy corner of western Massachusetts as the Nields, or the Nieldses, or Nerissa and Katryna Nields and their bandmates. The name the Nields popped up frequently in that area, the Pioneer Valley, to the point of being annoying. I imagined their music was annoying too: cutesy, cloying, crunchy-folky.
By the summer of 2001 I was living in Manhattan and finally saw the Nields perform as part of a series at the base of the World Trade Towers. The Towers stood on an inhospitable, perpetually windswept concrete plaza with terrible acoustics. I have trouble believing that the Nields, homespun hometown heroes of the Pioneer Valley, played in that incredibly unlikely spot, below the twin phalluses of capitalism, but I know they did, I didn't dream it, because at their merch table after the show I bought their 2-CD set Live from Northampton (2001).
Through the years that I'd lived in Amherst, MA, I'd spent time in nearby Northampton, but never set foot in Northampton's Iron Horse Music Hall, because no one I wanted to see ever played at the club. Now, years later, I proudly owned a live album recorded there.
After seeing that phenomenal show at the base of the World Trade Towers, which was sort of like seeing a band of hobbits at the base of Sauron's tower (hobbitses, Gollum calls 'em, at least in the movies), I urgently wanted to support the Nields because as people they seemed so nice and genuine, because their songs were so catchy and inventive, and because I needed to hear more of the sisters' breathtaking, otherworldly harmonies. I remember asking at the merch table which of their recordings sounded the most like the show I'd just heard.
On September 11 of that year, the World Trade Center was destroyed. At some point after that, I wrote to the band and thanked them for their show, which had humanized a forbidding location and left me with--at long last! and in the end--a warm memory of that place. Nerissa sent me a charming reply, saying the show had meant a lot to them too.
It was only in writing this piece that I discovered that Nerissa and Katryna's roots are in New York City. And if you started with the Nields historically, you'd visit their Wikipedia page and website (https://nields.com; see also https://nerissanields.com), then present facts such as that they formed in 1987 and have released, as of this writing, 20 recordings, from the out-of-print 66 Hoxsey Street (1992) to the state-of-the-state, furiously political November (2020). Their Wikipedia page and website and Discogs fudge on that discography, though, because some of the recordings are by the Nields and some are credited to Nerissa and Katryna Nields.
In any case, if you were starting musically, you could discuss any or all of those recordings, which are so sparely and tastefully produced that they still sound fresh. You might say that Gotta Getta Over Greta (1996), their bid for mainstream success, rocks and makes the band's Beatles influence explicit with a fun cover of "Lovely Rita." Play (1998) unexpectedly draws on alternative rock and psychedelia, name-checking Ani DiFranco but drawing on equal parts Throwing Muses and Buffy Sainte-Marie--and if you think I'm kidding, sample the kickass, weirdass, rhythmically off-kilter track "Tomorrowland." If You Lived Here You'd Be Home Now (2000) trades alternative rock for classic rock and employs a wide instrumental palette. Live from Northampton, the final recording by the original five-piece Nields, provides an excellent career overview and lively introduction to the Nields' special blend of influences, powerful playing, and impassioned vocals.
The description folk-pop-rock might lead readers to think they know what the sisters' music has sounded like all these years, but prior experience with other music of this kind doesn't convey just how ferocious, somberly beautiful, or playful the Nields can be or how attentive to textures they are; these aren't your average strumming or picking folkies. Nor, more importantly, does it tell you what happens when Nerissa and Katryna sing.
The sisters' voices individually display great flexibility, but in harmony those voices seem to draw strength from each other. With my untutored ears I can't tell whether they ever aim for the same note, but the notes they hit seem harmonically suited yet tending in different directions, sort of like Kate and Anna McGariggle's harmonies but wilder. The image that comes to mind is of two violins, with each bow at the same place on the same string yet angled in its own way so as to inflect the note. Meanwhile, the making of that note conveys joy, which becomes ecstasy as notes lead into higher ones. The characteristic Nields sound is of two voices swooping effortlessly, like birds barely having to flap their wings as they ride air currents. On the sisters' recordings over the decades, they gain greater and greater control over that motion.
"Fine," you may be thinking, "I've absorbed all the information you've presented, but where do I start with the Nields?" I'm going to start and finish by describing something near and dear to me. In 2002, Nerissa and Katryna Nields released Love and China, a CD whose impeccable songwriting and stellar performances always stun me. If you like impeccably recorded folk-pop-rock with country mixed in and with smart lyrics, unique melodies, soaring choruses, ringing guitars, breathtaking harmonies, and lots of heart, you might like, even love, Love and China.
To give you a more specific sense of this music: Imagine if Emmylou Harris before she made Wrecking Ball (in other words, at her most straightforwardly folk-country) and Joni Mitchell before she made Court and Spark (in other words, at her least jazzy), wrote a batch of songs informed by the Beatles and Tammy Wynette and Lucinda Williams, then produced a recording that sounds like the trio of Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton, but backed by the Traveling Wilburys. Got that?
As this mix of references indicates, Love and China can be construed partly as "the Nields go country." They'd gone down that dirt road before, though, such as on Play's "Nebraska" and If You Lived Here's "Keys to the Kingdom" and gorgeous cover of Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Anyway, on Love and China they do something trickier than go to one place.
The CD opens with two of its poppiest songs: "Ticket to My House" is lyrically cryptic, combining religious references with the idea of having a safe place in childhood. (The importance of place is a recurrent theme in Nields songs.) "Yesterday's Girl" might strike you as merely pleasant, '60s-influenced folk-pop. The hooks in both songs are gripping, especially when the sisters throw themselves into a torrent of "la-la-la's" at the climax of "Yesterday's Girl," but you might feel as though you've heard this before or heard enough music like this. Folk-oriented radio might have sandwiched either of these songs between any of the artists I've mentioned in the previous paragraphs.
Actually, if you tuned in to folk-oriented radio, your local listener-sponsored station, and heard the ecstatic ending of "Yesterday's Girl," you might wonder what that great song was, maybe even try to identify and locate it. But on the CD these songs function largely as stage-setting, maybe reassuring fans of the Nields that the duo material won't be too far from the familiar--with less heavy guitar and more straightforward rhythms, but in the same vein. Indeed, "Yesterday's Girl" is a Nields track in all but name. Only David Nields is missing (gone for good from the Nields), as the music is played by the band's drummer, Dave Hower, and its bassist, Dave Chalfant, who also plays all guitars on this track, plays bass and other instruments on the CD, produced the recording, and happens to be Katryna's husband.
The real drama starts with a shift in tone and tempo: "Love Me One More Time," also called "Love Me One More Time Before You Go," slows things down, as pedal steel guitar says "country," and the performances of non-Nields musicians (prominently guitarist Kevin Barry and drummer Lorne Entress) make this something different for the sisters. Nerissa is the songwriting Nields sister (David having also written some of the band's material, sometimes with her) and she clearly had been listening to country and wanting to write like its classic composers.
Lyrically the song could be a variation on Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night," but here the singer isn't struggling but is lustful before a parting: "So lie down here beside me dear and say you'll miss me so / And love me one more before you go."
There's tension between the lyrics' matter-of-factness and the singer's trilling and vibrato, but the tension's resolved in the acknowledgment of sadness in the lower notes.
From here, the CD presents one gem after another. Nerissa has always written interesting, articulate, and moving songs--her "One Hundred Names" and "Mercy House" are two of the most arrestingly, transcendently beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard (and if you think I'm exaggerating, please listen for yourself)--but here she has mined a particularly rich vein.
The country influence continues in "Tailspin," where fiddle and dobro convey a hoedown, and the rolling music conveys the singer's state. "I Haven't Got a Thing" has the stripped-down swing of Elvis Presley on his earliest recordings, for Sun Records. He'd have had a good time playing with the lines "And the house is big and cold / Full of the ghost of the truth you told / And I haven't got a thing without you." Elvis probably wouldn't have sounded comfortable doing "The Sweetness," but Patsy Cline might have: "All the country songs have told me that our love is over . . . But you know and I know that there's always more to tell." The country goes western on "He Loves the Road," as acoustic strumming, brushed drums, and accordion create a high lonesome sound that the lyrics address: "How can you hate the prairie? . . . How can you hate the sound of high lonesome / He loves the road more than me."
As these quoted lines indicate, the songs vibrate with pain. A relationship has ended, but the couple hasn't let go. They still look at each other, even reach out, from habit or hope or bewilderment.
The ache of "He Loves the Road" ends the CD's country excursion, and the title track then offers a relationship summary statement. "I was young, but I looked twenty-seven / You were old but you acted like eleven / Against all odds we began a little affair." Here the basic Nields sound registers differently after the country songs. And the territory looks different than it did on the cheerier "Ticket to My House" and "Yesterday's Girl": Propulsive rhythm, searing guitar lines, and soaring harmonies draw you in to a look at lies, things breaking, and "the shores of the Jealous Sea."
The title "Christmas Carol" might make secular types nervous, and that song's references to angels are coupled with truly angelic singing. But in this tale the couple is apart, and the newly alone woman faces her family at the holidays: "I'm not ready for the questions / I'm not the daughter that I thought I'd be." On the choruses, the sisters' harmonies simultaneously sympathize with the singer's complex feelings and offer a way out of them, a release.
Glorious harmonies again break your heart on the acoustic "This Happens Again and Again." An indie-rock toughness pervades "All These Years," about "a midlife crisis, broken heart." Then comes the majestic "Heading Home"-"I'm always heading home / When I'm on the road with you"--where the Nieldses stretch out the notes to illustrate the ache of yearning.
Then, again, something different: On "Eulogy for Emma," Nerissa delivers a solo, acoustic ode to a "dog that's gone." While serious and touching and bearing a message, this lament--like, say, the acoustic snippet "Her Majesty" at the end of Abbey Road--offers counterpoint to the lyrical and musical themes that have preceded it.
Finally, "New State of Grace" again brings the Nields, the band, in all but name. It's as though the sisters, having started Love and China with their band's sound and style, traveled through a series of byways, trying out different routes, to end up where they began but all the stronger for their explorations. "New State of Grace," revving up with a combination of guitar textures, then riding rhythmic waves that surge and recede, displays effortless mastery in terms of folk-pop-rock architecture. If you want to leave your listeners on a spiritual high note, this is how to do it.
And there you, listener, have a starting place for the Nields. Take these thoughts and extrapolate them to a three-decade career of adventurous, committed creativity. If you like the acoustic-based band sound of Love and China, continue to Nerissa and Katryna's This Town Is Wrong (2004). If you'd like to hear the acoustic folk emphasized and bluegrassy banjo added, try their Sister Holler (2007). The Nields' XVII (2015) rocks anew, with a full electric band venturing into genres such as soul and New Orleans jazz and bringing it all back home by reemphasizing the pop in their folk-pop-rock--and if you think folk-pop-rock musicians can't be all fired up and inventive ("at the very top of their game," as their website puts it) on their seventeenth recording, check out the deliciously catchy existential anthem "You Don't Have That Kind of Time" and their career-retrospective-in-song, "Wasn't That a Time."
If you're looking for musicians who rip up the rocks of existence and show you the things that crawl below, don't look here. But if you like the sound of singers unafraid of feeling and intelligence yet not displaying them as much as illustrating them through song, you may have a favorite "new" band and much material to explore. It's never too late. Just don't search for 'the Nieldses.'
Also see Kurt Wildermuth's website
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