Here at The Key, we spend a lot of time each week digging through every new release from Philadelphia that shows up on Bandcamp. At the end of each week, we present you with the most interesting, most unusual and overall best of the bunch: this is Items Tagged Philadelphia.
I don’t know what it is, honestly. Is it that I’m becoming less discerning the more music I listen to for this project? It’s possible, but I doubt it — I feel just as psyched about music as I’ve always been, and typically that sort of thing moves in an inverse direction: like the more music you consume, the more you reach burnout levels and the less stuff stands out. Is it that the quality of stuff showing up under the Philadelphia tag on Bandcamp is increasing as this project goes on? Also possible, but the one certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the other.
All’s I know is that in the first installment of Items Tagged Philadelphia, I picked out four standout releases to spotlight with relative ease, and this week — seven weeks in — I had a tough time winnowing it down to ten. Maybe I started the project on a slow week?
Whatever the case, this current batch of recordings has intertwined in positive ways with my vinyl listening over the weekend. I’ve had Andy Shauf’s elegant 2016 outing The Party sitting shrink-wrapped by my turntable since the holidays, and finally dug in yesterday afternoon. My wife got me the amazing good kid m.A.A.d. city: A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar on double LP for Valentine’s Day as well; I did not realize that was the full name of the record, but there you go. And at Friday’s album release day party for Strand of Oaks’ Hard Love, I picked up the record of the hour, along with Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale.
Of the former: I am absolutely blown away the more I listen. I daresay Hard Love is better than Tim Showalter’s breakout 2014 record HEAL, both in terms of sonic and thematic cohesiveness and powerful performances — and it may well be tied for best Oaks album overall, alongside 2010’s Pope Killdragon. Of the latter: it was Stevie’s nineteenth album. NINE. TEENTH. He’d only been a recording artist for just over a decade when it came out, and it predated his magnum opus Songs in the Key of Life.
You would think that, being in the mix alongside such heavy hitters, somebody’s home recorded acoustic musings or laptop beats and rhymes would pale in comparison, but nope — I loved listening to this stuff just as much as I loved dropping the needle on the higher profile jams. I hope that some of these artists have that same persistence, productivity and tenacity to get to album nineteen.
Singer-guitarist Nicole VanAller released a funny and thought-provoking collection of songs this week called Collegiate Existential Crisis. It spans “sophomore year till now,” and if my calculations are accurate, “now” is the final stretch of senior year — or maybe a bit later on, with graduation recently in the rearview. The music is anti-folk in the vein of Regina Spektor and Bright Eyes, and lyrical concerns touch on frustration with the nine to five, establishing an identity anew in a working world kind of way, as well as battles against sexism and regressive attitudes. But there’s also an element of struggling to understand those who don’t share your worldview one you step outside the proverbial bubble. Good, honest stuff.
This dovetailed incredibly well with Kendrick; rapper darwin.destroyed, whose discography started populating in earnest this winter, released a two-track single called obsessive, compulsive. that marries woozy, backwards looped beat tapestries with cool, confident rhymes. “JUDGEMENT” seems to stick firmly on the braggart flow tip, but “.demigodular.” sounds remarkably progressive, rocking philosophical, place-in-the-world rhymes to an incredible backing track by STRKLR that’s reminiscent of Massive Attack in the best way.
The narrative undercurrent of this Philadelphia artist’s experimental pop EP The Thaw seems like a minor key and maybe a bit morose — but nevertheless compelling — companion to the Shauf record this weekend. Woulfe traveled from Olympia to Los Angeles and back in January with LVL UP collaborator Mike Ditrio. As he tells it, “We were followed down the coast by harsh rains and mud slides and brief spurts of sun and our sets started to match the environment around us. The day before I flew back east we recorded this live to tape as a memento from our travels.” The vibe is layers of fuzz guitar and drone, free-associative vocals (“I wanna stay soft in the ignorant sprawl”) and a collage of sound indebted in part to Ditrio’s contributions of “pedal szzurps” and “rewinding.” The album has a companion illustrated zine, and proceeds go to the NODAPL Medic + Healer Council.
As a Twin Peaks devotee, I gotta give it up for the name of artist-owned studio / label Black Lodge Productions. Also gotta give it up for their mission: creating a space for artists to explore challenging, left-of-center ideas without commercial concerns hanging over their head. On the ellipsis EP, the trio of Jerome Ali on guitar, Ritchie O’Connell on drums and Dylan Sherwood McConnell on bass flex their improvisatory muscles, exploring lowkey bop rhythms and smooth guitar licks in five to seven minute servings.
His profile pic shows this Philly rapper onstage at Silk City, wearing a shirt that says “90s R&B.” That might give an expectation of retro vibes to his Singles collection released this week, but remember that the 90s were a long decade: the early years might have been all about the boom bap, but the synthesizer-tinged melodic production by the decade’s end — which this set is more directly indebted to — is a strong link to the deep bass approach of today. Which is to say, yes, this stuff is retro (there’s even some scratching in the mix), but it’s just as coolly contemporary.
Everybody wants to sing the blues, but most people probably shouldn’t. Laura Cheadle, though, has a powerful voice that she uses with tasteful restraint on Chill, the Jersey singer-songwriter’s latest collection of vibrant pop. Though her songs clearly draw from the blues, as well as soul, late 80s R&B and a touch of smooth jazz (thankfully only a touch), the record doesn’t hit you over the head with its various sonic identities, allowing the flavors to simmer and comingle into something more singular, sort of in the way Carole King’s Tapestry did. Impressive.
Indie rock dudes who record on basement four-tracks are a dime a dozen, particularly in the wilds of Bandcamp. Teen Spaceship gets this, and rather than vomiting forth every damn cut he puts down, he takes a little longer to get it right. “Take,” is the project’s first song since 2015. It’s under two minutes long. And before you say “really John, you’re praising this dude whose name we don’t know for recording two minutes’ worth of music in two years?”, just listen to the dang song. It takes the whole lo-fi homespun stylistic approach and freaking nails it in top possible form, with sick vibes of Sebadoh and On Avery Island NMH drifting forth from its compact drumbeats, fuzzy guitars and double-tracked vocal. Teen Spaceship gets to the point, makes it in expert fashion and then makes a swift exit — hopefully not for another two years though.
Disclosure: I don’t care for 8-bit chiptune music. I’m not the sort to say I actively dislike any genre, but if I was forced to choose one, well, you know. That said, I like Philly’s psuedonymously named Ragas, which delivers the style in a highly listenable form on playing videogames in ur parent’s basement — the shrillness toned down, the dynamic arrangements beefed up — while also kind of making fun of itself via song titles like “o fuck the princess died and theres some text scrolling down the screen bout it.” Bonus points for the genius cover illustration by Lucy Shelton.
Speaking of a strong cover art game, OMG that black cat a la Warhol. Singer-songwriter xo alice recorded her demo at South Philly show house Tralfamadore, and it’s a terrific introduction to a new voice. Alice’s range is powerful, and her songs take unexpected turns — a breezy bossa nova progression on the verse of “Foreign Figures” leaps into a more Beatles-esque chorus. By way of Paramore, that is. The recordings have a lot of room for expansion into bigger arrangements in that way (they are demos, recall) — and they could become glossy pop songs as likely as arena rockers — but hearing them in this format shows they have strong bones, whatever direction xo alice chooses to develop them.
One more for the road, one more of spectral improvisatory jams care of Hannah McLane on electric guitar and Nathanael Totushek on drums. Unlike Trio Jazz, which wanders on the fringes of the more traditional world of SOUTH and Time, Night Mode’s Orestheus Rex EP is solidly in the zone of Ars Nova Workshop, Crazy Horse and White Light, White Heat, the kind of jazz-tinged explorations meant for projecting images onto walls and letting your mind wander.
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