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Fieldhands cultivating a comeback

After a seven-year gap, the band is performing again.

It's not surprising that indie sensation Kurt Vile is a Strapping Fieldhands fan. He shares with his Philly predecessors a fondness for psychedelic distortion, for lo-fi weirdness, for melodies that dissolve or fragment. Vile drafted the Fieldhands as openers for his homecoming gig at Johnny Brenda's tonight. Actually, he's been trying to get them to play for a while, but the problem was, they didn't really exist anymore.

Before a November gig at Kung Fu Necktie, the Fieldhands hadn't played out in seven years, since their swan song, The Third Kingdom. About a year ago, though, the original Fieldhands - singer/guitarist Bob Malloy, guitarist Jacy Webster, bassist/cellist Bob Dickie, drummer Jeff Werner - reconvened to work on some new songs. Now, they're ready to rejuvenate their careers.

Back in the mid '90s, the Fieldhands toured with Guided by Voices, Pavement, and the Grifters, fellow luminaries of the nascent lo-fi independent scene. Albums such as 1994's Discus and 1996's Wattle and Daub contained traces of '60s garage rock, drunken sea chanties, Appalachian folk, and Syd Barrett-style British psychedelia, all distilled into gloriously warped, ramshackle, rattling rock-and-roll.

"When we were doing our stuff, people thought that we were pretty weird," says Malloy. "Now, young bands want to play around with cellos and weird instruments and strange compositions."

The band's notorious lo-fi sound was part circumstance, part coincidence, part aesthetic.

"The whole lo-fi thing - the term came after we started and it was applied to us. We didn't know we were lo-fi," he says. "We just had crummy equipment, basically. We recorded everything on tape, and that home-studio sound became a cool thing."

Because of a poor vinyl pressing, their first album, Discus, "sounded like the whole thing was wrapped in a blanket or something," says Malloy. (A new digital reissue brightens the sound considerably.)

But still, the Fieldhands never wanted to sound polished.

"We were never trying to do anything lo-fi for an effect," says Malloy. "There's a lot of musical knowledge in the band. We all have very picky tastes about music, so if anything starts to sound produced or false or rings like this is going for an effect as opposed to sounding honest, we all have built-in crap detectors. So we keep it honest and warts and all and go with that, because that's kind of our aesthetic."

And now the Fieldhands are back, ready for a new decade. New material is in the works, including a single for Brian McTear's Weathervane Music, and they play a festival in Belgium in March. And Vile is not the only one who remembers the band.

"Young people have heard of us and are into it," says Malloy. "Our name seems to have lasted through the decades, which is great. We had our little cache of being cool and underground. But you never know if that's going to go to obscurity and then fade out or if it's going to have any durability. It's great that people still talk about us and that they're excited that we're back."