Review: Spencer Radcliffe / RL Kelly - "Brown Horse"

Spencer Radcliffe/RL Kelly - Brown Horse
(Orchid Tapes 2014)

There's a cozy innocence that flows throughout Brown Horse, the split LP featuring lo-fi singer-songwriters Spencer Radcliffe and RL Kelly, enveloping the listener like a heavy blanket. It's the sort of innocence that's saddening, the kind you encounter when you read the books or watch the television shows you enjoyed in kindergarten, making you feel guilty and a little depressed for ever having allowed yourself to grow up. The raw, twee purity delivered on either side of the tape hit hard on an emotional level, perhaps without even trying to.

Radcliffe's side opens with "Green Things". The track starts off minimally, droning keyboard accompanying fingerpicked acoustic guitar, but these two elements, rather somber in nature, slowly build up to a striking crescendo, pluckings giving way to percussive strums and keyboard replaced by a medieval-sounding flute, which carries the song's melody. Moments like these are many on Radcliffe's half of the album, quiet and restrained escalations that give way to Dionysian appeals to emotion, often in the form of unbridled joy Each song contains just one or maybe two verses and a single chorus, following a songwriting structure often employed by post-rock bands. The mumbly, awkward vibe that opens "Tattoo" gradually glues itself together into an infectious chorus, cheery synths complimenting the staidly delivered mantra of "Saw your dad's yellow cupholder / when we're 25 years older / meet me in the parking lot / we'll hand it off", which is phrased like a jumprope rhyme. My favorite cut off the side is its keyboard-driven outlier, "My Song", a spoken-word tune that borders on twee hip-hop.

RL Kelly's half of the tape is more accessible, applying a more traditional structure to her craft, but losing no ground when it comes to beauty. Each track is composed of carefully layered acoustic guitar against often folky vocal harmonies. The twangy guitar parts that drive "Again" remind me of the sort of nuanced indie-rock being released by Up Records in the early 90s. "Wake Up" is my choice for the most satisfying song of the side, a minimal and tender tune in the form of words of encouragement to a younger kid who's been bullied by his classmates. Both Radcliffe and Kelly deliver their own take on lo-fi twee on Brown Horse, an effort that's reminiscent of both Belle and Sebastian and Built to Spill. If you dig warm, nostalgic vibes and fuzzy guitar-pop, this tape is your dream come true.