I have a very specific memory of being about 11 years old, the day after attending a birthday party where my friend introduced me to Weezer via “The Sweater Song,” and looking up the band on whatever rudimentary internet service we would have had back then. On the band’s website at the time, I remember downloading a video for “Say It Ain’t So” and being blown away. Not necessarily by the song, but the video that featured the band performing in a laundry room of a clearly overcrowded and run down house. The thought had never occurred to me before then: people actually make music at home? My entire music context consisted of big budget pop and stuff like Fleetwood Mac, so seeing a bunch of lanky twenty year olds making really good music in a random room was revolutionary to me (and also not that far from the truth, their kitchen-recorded pre-debut demos are pretty great).
Give me a few years until I’m in my late teens and I’ve discovered Daniel Johnston and Built to Spill, and I’m fully enamored by this little DIY thing. I remember spending some time with a local band of friends and colleagues called Yarn Owl in their bedroom studio, my romantic image of gear stacked everywhere, scrapped song lyric sheets strewn about. It’s an ideology and imagery I still consider a core part of my values; calling it bedroom pop seems limiting and calling it lo-fi feels disingenuous. Regardless of genre, home-recorded music has a tonal texture to it that feels empowering and uplifting.
A stunningly perfect example of this is Brown Horse, a split album by Rachel Levy of R.L. Kelly and Spencer Radcliffe of Blithe Field. Both artists, like their Orchid Tapes kin, meander through depressive states and melancholy thoughts, but their methods of delivery create a disorienting contrast.
Radcliffe takes over the record’s A-side, piecing together ramshackle sounds and samples with acoustic guitar, like the wistful “Green Things” that layers droning Casio organs with glockenspiel and a cheery recorder. Radcliffe’s music feels inherently child-like, from the instruments that make up his sound palette to the indecisive melodies and shape-shifting songs. The end of “Dorsal Collapse” literally collapses into ringing noise and distorted, rambling voices like a weird nightmare. “My Song”‘s arpeggiating toy keyboard and primitive, sampled beat backs a story about a guy “who said some things that really messed with my head,” and deadpanned, “I said, ‘That’s dope,’ and immediately regretted it.”
A lot of the material on Radcliffe’s side feels reminiscent of Sung Tongs or the work of David Plell: complex and ever-changing with an offbeat sense of humor. R.L. Kelly guests on the album’s title track, which segues nicely into her half of the record. Much like her work on her split with Alex G or her solo EP from last year, Levy’s music is largely based around her voice and an acoustic guitar. Her lyrics paint stark, devastating pictures but on Brown Horse there’s a glimmer of positivity with each song. Especially on the gorgeous pep-talk of “Wake Up” which seeks to cheer up a bullied schoolkid through its affirmations of, “They wanna hurt you, because they’re hurting too.”
There’s a lot of despair packed into these short songs, but it’s almost always inspirational and encouraging rather than self-pitying. There’s empowerment in empathy, and Brown Horse is chock full of it, from the disinterested antagonist in “Tattoo” to the distant friend or love interest in “Again.” The album closes with “The Great Big World,” once again featuring both artists together to close out the B-side, and as the song erupts into a cacophonous climax everyone involved repeats: “the great, great, great big world keeps spinning.” Sure, it’s a cliché, but sometimes it’s the simplest things that affect you in the biggest ways.
Brown Horse is out now via Orchid Tapes.