Review: Blithe Field - "Face Always Toward the Sun"

Blithe Field - Face Always Toward The Sun
(2016 Orchid Tapes)

When he isn't crafting surreal pop soundscapes under his own name, Chicago's Spencer Radcliffe paints equally strange ambient abstractions as Blithe Field. The project's latest full-length effort, Face Always Toward the Sun is a scattered pile of auditory Tinker Toys - though its quivering breaths of tinny synthesizer and nervous field-recorded clatter fit together like square pegs into square holes, Radcliffe continually finds new ways to play with these building blocks of sound, coated with chipped layers of tertiary-toned paint. 

Standout cut "Milkshakes In The Rain" is a simple construction, sturdy and symmetrical. Sprinkled with tape hiss and vinyl crackle, it forms a solid scaffolding of twangy guitar picking strong enough to support the elegant canopy of vocoder harmonies that drapes itself atop the composition as comfily as melted cheese on a burger or a housecat on a throw blanket. The track occupies the same musical territory populated by Reedbeds and Stars are Insane: it's impressionist sound painting. The closer I get to the thick dabs of pasty guitar and glistening Fisher-Price chimes - the more times this ambient carousel orbits my room - the more formless they get. A once-clear painting disintegrates into abstract brushstrokes that form new shapes.

I'm unzipping a soft, navy blue lunchbox in the cafeteria, reaching in and producing a plastic-wrapped 6-pack of impossibly orange peanut butter crackers. I feel thirsty. Or maybe I watch raindrops embrace and cascade down the van window. It's dark out. In the back seat, I strain my eyes to read the greyscale panels of newspaper comics and the night's chill makes my arm-hairs stand on end. When I get home I'll tear the foil off the baseball cards I slipped into the shopping cart at Target. This sound is pure - I feel like a child and I want to fumble at some sort of packaging with my fat fingers.

Radcliffe builds towering, avant-garde structures too. Pebbles of crunchy ambience shower onto a quiet, creeping piano riff - somewhere between Carpenter's Halloween score and an Erik Satie piece - looped ad infinitum. Gradually, this piano loop becomes completely buried and Radcliffe begins to employ heavy machinery to dig it out. Atonal synths rattle like chains and grind like rusty moving parts to pierce the stillness. "Secret Soda Machine" snakes along on an off-kilter rhythm, piping glassy bubbles into the undulating contents of a fishtank. Face Always Toward the Sun is brimming with tactile, evocative sounds, each tone a holder of childhood memories in this dusty musical attic.