If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now
Massachusetts folk-rockers the Nields have returned to their roots with their latest album, If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now, released in March. Their most diverse album yet, it features Woody Guthrie style folk, Beatles 60’s pop, Hank Williams country, a Sondheim style ballad, and even a poem.
The album also marks a new step for the Nields: unlike their previous albums, this one does not attempt to record songs that can be reproduced in their live show. In If You Lived Here, the band has taken advantage of the studio to add more layers and more instruments than they could possibly bring with them on tour. They have also called in many of their friends to help with this new sound: if you listen closely you can hear backing by Moxy FrÜvous, Dar Williams, Jump Little Children, The Kennedys, Susan Werner, and others.
The new album has been hit-and-miss with die-hard Nields fans -- some think it is the greatest album yet and some, like this author, care little for the folkier (almost country) numbers that dominate this album, preferring the more upbeat and rockier songs typical of their previous albums. Both types of fans at least agree that the performances on this album show off the top-quality musical ability that has made this band famous.
The Nields are a fivesome made up of two sisters, Katryna and Nerissa Nields, who provide well-trained, harmonized vocals, and three guys all named Dave who back them up on guitar, bass, and drums. The group began in Northampton in 1991 when Nerissa, just out of Yale, formed a folk trio with her sister and Nerrissa’s boyfriend David Jones (who later married and took her last name to become David Nields). Nerissa and David are the songwriting geniuses, writing intelligent songs in which Katryna usually sings the melody and Nerissa harmonizes. By 1994, they had picked up bassist Dave Chalfant (who has since married Katryna) and drummer Dave Hower (who is, sadly, unattached). With the new instruments, the band has taken on a fuller, rock sound which has moved them from simply folk music to a wonderful blend of folk intelligence with 90’s alternative attitude.
After playing for some years in coffeehouses around the state, their 1996 album Gotta Get Over Greta exploded onto college radio. This album, I like to think, is like Flood to They Might Be Giants: it’s the big college hit and, if you only own one Nields album, it’s probably this one.
Their next major album, Play, released in 1998, however, is my personal favorite. This album contains my favorite Nields song of all time, “Snowman” (inspired by a Wallace Stevens poem), in which Nerissa shows off her incredible voice. The vocals on this song are so powerful that when it is performed live, Nerissa has to stand a couple feet back from the microphone to keep from overloading the sound system. Play, as the name suggests, lets the Nields show off their theatrical side. Casual fans might not know that David Nields holds an MFA in directing and directs productions in Northampton when he’s not touring, and Dave Chalfant’s mother is award-winning Broadway actress Kathleen Chalfant. The best manifestation of the theatrical aspect of the album is its liner notes, written in the form of a play script.
Play and the new album If You Lived Here were both produced in Northampton, in Dave Chalfant’s home studio. As testament to Dave Chalfant’s amazing production ability, neither album sounds the least bit homemade. In fact, Dave has also used his studio to produce albums for other groups.
The two sisters have recently started touring as a duo. Dar Williams, alluding to Star Trek, dubbed them “The Probe,” because this “un-manned” duo has functioned as an emissary introducing the Nields to previously uncharted territory. With its softer sound, the duo is able to play in folkier venues to folkier audiences that might not normally be exposed to the full band. The duo began out of necessity. In 1997, the sisters had been asked to perform at Lilith fair, but without the guys. They turned the offer down. In 1998, when Lilith Fair called again, they decided it was too big a gig to turn down twice. Nerissa had not previously been confident that her guitar ability could sustain a duo, but after the Lilith Fair performance was a success, she realized that they could really do it, and she is now more confident in her guitar playing. Playing as a duo has allowed the sisters to return to their folk beginning after having played so many tours through the rock club circuit.
While the Nields sound more like fellow folk-rockers Eddie From Ohio, I think it is fair to compare them in other ways to Moxy FrÜvous. It’s not too far fetched, given that both bands are good friends, though with a little friendly rivalry, and both have opened shows for each other. The Nields even introduced new non-musical ideas into their live shows, like frequent fan cards and more mid-song theatrics, after their 1997 tour with Moxy FrÜvous. I find the comparison fitting because of the similarity of their audiences, which happen to overlap quite a bit. Both bands have become big through grassroots efforts involving their fans and a significant internet presence (see the Nields web site at <http://www.nields.com>). After the Nields re-released Greta, their new label shut down, leaving them out on their own when, at the same time, their tour van broke down. The band, simply through their mailing list, organized a benefit concert “Jam for the Van” which raised $24,000 towards a new van.
The comparison, I hope, continues to MIT: in the spring of 1997, a little-known Moxy FrÜvous played a concert in the Student Center, making them a household name on campus. I’m betting that the same thing will happen with the Nields when they perform at MIT this spring: they will be well received by MIT students who appreciate danceable music with intelligent lyrics. Opening for the Nields will be fellow folk-rock New Englander, Jess Klein, who is one of the songwriters who helped form RESPOND, a series of albums and concerts to benefit women’s shelters in Boston.
Some students have already received a taste of the Nields when the sisters opened for Dar Williams in Kresge at a concert celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Women’s Studies Program at MIT. The audience for this concert, which packed Kresge, was overwhelmingly of college age or younger. This is evidence of the revival of folk and folk-rock that we have seen this decade.