I submit that the most salient and effective use of a non-human animal’s voice on a pop record was the dog bark on “You Still Believe In Me”, track two of the Beach Boys’ 1966 magnum opus Pet Sounds. That dog bark belied Brian Wilson’s indebtedness to composer John Cage, whose prepared piano pieces incorporated sounds that, while unremarkable on the street, were novel in the concert hall.
In that same tradition: the bark at the two second mark of “Mia”, the new track from Spencer Radcliffe. “Mia”’s a song whose instrumentation recalls the effortless, intricate pop of not only the Beach Boys but also, to name a more recent example, Mikal Cronin. Using the timbre and structure of a pop song and the studio experimentation of a pop auteur, Radcliffe, in his historical context, explores and expands the tonal palette available to recording artists.
Radcliffe has a long history of studio experimentation. As Blithe Field, his previous project, Radcliffe released ten albums over the five year stretch between 2008 and 2013, all full of delay, reverb, and pristinely clean samples that amounted to catchy, atmospheric ambient tracks. His eponymous work, whose instrumentation trends more acoustic, uses a different tonal palette to achieve a similar atmosphere.
In dialogue with Radcliffe’s previous work, “Mia” confronts listeners with the ways in which our expectations regarding the timbre of different instruments colors our aural experience. “Mia” begins with a breezy, twangy guitar riff before launching into a fully-voiced orchestral pop composition where flute-delicate synth fills the gaps between prominent guitar and drums. The instruments, with their differing rhythmic emphases, weave together with Radcliffe’s voice to create a tapestry whose tempo is faster than a Blithe Field track but whose texture reveals itself as equally rich to an engaged listener.
The cover of Looking In, the album for which “Mia” serves as a lead single, features a cat in a fishbowl with a fish looking in. That this seems strange is due as much to our expectations regarding the proper environment for these animals as it is their actual positioning, but it would be easy to miss this quirk were one to take the album cover at face value and miss its implication that we, too, should be looking in. Looking in is an active disposition, and the humble complexity of “Mia” is a call to engage with it—a complexity announced with the bark of a dog.
You can stream “Mia” below. Looking In is due on October 2 via Run For Cover Records.