Who It Is: Spencer Radcliffe – Looking In; Run For Cover Records (2015)
What It Sounds Like: Elvis Depressedly, Small Wonder, R.L. Kelly
Unknown to most, Spencer Radcliffe has been pumping out under-the-radar bedroom pop since 2008 (then under the moniker Blithe Field). In the seven years since Blithe Field’s inception, the Chicago bedroom songwriter Spencer Radcliffe has put out thirteen musical releases of various lengths. Most notable of these is a recent split with R.L. Kelly titled Brown Horse (released through Orchid Tapes), in which he experiments with static-y synthesizers, subdued spoken-word, and a series of affected field recordings that remind me of the Dolphin Flange preset on Garageband (but somehow in a very good way). With the release of his latest album Looking In under Run For Cover Records, Radcliffe is being forced to negotiate his position as an independent songwriter while bringing his music to a much larger audience — carefully balancing his musical oddity with infectious vocal melodies and the nuanced application of field recordings.
The album’s single, “Mia,” almost feels like a departure from the bedroom experimentalism laced throughout Brown Horse and other releases, reimagining Pavement and other 90’s bigwigs with a freak-folk twist. Far from cliché, the full-band segments of this album highlight Radcliffe’s incredible ear for melody and tweaks in texture, evident in “Mia” with a shower-worthy verse and a nicely buzzed-out synthesizer in the last chorus.
However, the general tone of the album is more along the lines of his earlier releases. As Radcliffe continues to work with larger labels, he continues to keep it whacky — the more accessible tracks like “Mia” and “Yankee” become a minority as he wanders toward the noisier end of bedroom pop in “Relief” and “Looking In.” As the halfway point and title track of the album, “Looking In” functions as Radcliffe’s nuh-uh to anyone that thinks he might abandon the field recording experientialism of his earlier work. A two-minute long synth-noise dirge (sans vocals), “Looking In” would be more at home on a Merzbow record than the boutique bedroom sounds that Radcliffe seems to accommodate.
These two sides of Radcliffe seem most at ease with each other in “Mermaid,” which opens the album with an out-of-tune trumpet and repetitive low-end mic bubbling. This quickly transitions to a meditative two-chord vamp that emphasizes melody over motion, using meticulously-placed textures to escalate a deceptively simple structure. Radcliffe, I think, knows how to keep it catchy without falling into a single formula. As he croons that “I will beg for nothing at all,” I think Radcliffe is reassuring us that he’s not catering to anybody but himself, regardless of how big he gets.
You Should Probably Listen To: “Mermaid,” “Mia,” “E”
Overal Rating: 8/10