The Key’s Year-End Mania: John Vettese’s Top 5 Philly music discoveries of 2014

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Vita and the Woolf | Photo by Rachel Del Sordo |racheldelsordophotography.com
Vita and the Woolf | Photo by Rachel Del Sordo | racheldelsordophotography.com

Let’s not understate the point here: 2014 was an incredible year for music.

Every year when I kick off Year-End Mania, our annual rundown of random and various things The Key staff loved over the past 12 months, I write a lead-in that cynically cuts down the monotony of Best-Of List culture. This year, the crew and I have been so inspired by records that have come out on the local and national level, we’re breaking a cardinal rule of the series – we’re actually going to bring you a ranked list of The Key’s Best Albums of 2014.

We’ll get to that, though. The point of Year-End Mania, after all, is digging below the surface, thinking and talking about things a little bit more deeply than the aggregator blogs that just echo whatever’s trending. (The new D’Angelo record is boss, though.) In particular, the point is shining a light on the thriving Philly music scene. Leading up to Thanksgiving last month, I made a mixtape of 20 Philly bands that we’re thankful for this year and it didn’t even scratch the surface of the great artists I’ve heard emerge from our city in 2014. Here are five more artists that, in one way or another, have knocked me sideways this year.

1. Vita and the Woolf – I remember sitting at my desk this June as a friend played me Vita and the Woolf’s single “Mary” for the first time. We stopped what we were doing, crowded around the laptop speakers and listened until its rapturous four minutes and 15 seconds were up. Frontwoman and pianist Jennifer Pague has a commanding voice and a knack for writing music that pulls you in. It’s soulful, its rocks out with abandon, it explores arty avenues as well as anthemic arenas. Fang Song, Vita and the Woolf’s debut, was a DIY recording project of Pague’s as she wrote a cycle of songs inspired by the romance between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sack-ville West. It’s lo-fi, but it shimmers. With the formation of a live band featuring Bobby Cleveland on bass and synth and Adam Shumski on drums, I’m excited to see how explosive their next record is.

2. Chelsea Reed and the Fair Weather Five – We’re at least five decades removed from the last time that jazz music was largely the domain of hip young people, but this Philly combo makes the genre feel young and alive. How do they do it? They’re freaking incredible musicians, for starters. Their playing is tight, and they have a strong adherence to tradition – this is not some kitschy nostalgia act dishing out novelty singles, it’s six musicians who take turns soloing on saxophone, trumpet, guitar, bass, drums and voice, all impressively. Reed in particular is a strong band leader who knows how to work a crowd; she gets plenty of practice, with the Five’s regular late-night residencies at Chris’ Jazz Cafe. My first exposure to the band was in January via The Temple News‘ Tiny Desk-esque video of the band playing “Everybody Loves My Baby” in their offices. Watch it below, get won over and proceed directly to the Fair Weather Five’s Key Studio Session for more swinging downloadable fun.

3. O.H.M. – “I know you like hearing about sex, violence, drugs and whatnot,” read the notes on this Philly rapper’s 2013 mixtape N-Lord. “That shit’s in here too! but we got more important shit to discuss.” I can’t think of a better mission statement for a socially conscious rapper in 2014. O.H.M. (aka Omar OriginalMan Samir) doubles as part of the Hungry Ghosts crew, but his solo performance at this September’s Obscura showcase in West Philly solidified this man as a singular force, a storyteller, an artist who knows how to bring the party while simultaneously getting the crowd thinking about society through charged observational lyrics – as well as thinking about themselves via introspective rhymes. It’s poetic, spiritual stuff that, like I said at the time, reminds me of the heady days of Philly’s The Last Emperor circa 2001. He also knows how to make a show feel like home; at Obscura, O.H.M. played a couple songs seated cozily on the floor, the crowd gathered around him amid pillows.

4. Tinmouth – This is what you call a power trio, folks. Tinmouth’s angular indie rock jams aren’t fancied up with loop stations and keyboard sounds. There’s a place for that stuff, absolutely, but not here. What we’ve got is a booming, ballsy bass from Aaron Sternick; over on the drums, a rhythmic machine who goes by the name of Alyssa Shea; and leading the band, Timothy Tebordo, whose guitar lines and feedback walls add color and detail to the blend. In terms of sound, these folks hit hard; in terms of songwriting, they look to the DIY scene of the 80s, channeling Yo La Tengo, Mission of Burma and a little bit of R.E.M. It’s poppy, but properly punchy, offering some grit with the sweet. Their debut LP Says is out early next year, and you should make it a point to see Tinmouth live the next opportunity you can.

5. Ganou – Eclectic electronic Philadelphia artist Morgane Fouse is a bit of an enigma. Late last year, under her stage name Ganou, she released the beautiful Catharsis, a moving and textured album that blended bass-y, James Blake-esque electronic beds with evocative minimalist beats and Fouse’s sublime vocals. She performed a Key Session for us and shortly thereafter went into a brief creative hibernation. The album was a literal act of catharsis, she told us at the time. Some of the hurt that inspired it still stung, and she needed time to ease it down and figure out the role music should play in her life. Thankfully, it wasn’t the last we heard of her. In May, the dream-like “God is in the…” video emerged, while a fantastic spoken word / impressionistic rock collaboration called “Spanish Horses” was released with Ill Fated Natives in July. By the fall, she was back on stage and producing new music. In an era where musicians are driven to constantly feed content to the internet lest they disappear from the public’s radar, it’s admirable that Ganou still creates for the sake of creating, and the results she gets when she steps back are astonishing.

(Incomplete) Honorable Mentions: Philly blues-rock powerhouse Ill Fated Natives, Lansdale garage rock trio The Sixties, Doylestown country-folk ensemble Dirty Dollhouse, electronic soul soundscaper Son Little, fired-up MC Khemist.

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