Items Tagged Philadelphia: Light and shadow, low and high

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Chiaroscuro | via therealchiaroscuro.bandcamp.com

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.

Pet peeve: the word “beachy” as a description of music. I’m sure we’ve used it a fair share of times in these pages, and I apologize. It’s typically a catch-all for carefree breezy pop, particularly of the mindless electro-tinged indie dudebro variety. And I don’t know about you, but I — like Philly’s Dead Milkmen — am not the biggest fan of the beach, or “the shore” in the parlance of our region. It’s a tremendously sad place on any number of levels: desolation and decay, ennui and loneliness, the desperation of clinging to some societal myth about youth and conventional beauty while the tide of time literally washes it further and further away.

Not that there isn’t worthwhile art to be made in those surroundings, of course. Last night I watched The Promise, a doc on the making of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, the brooding and quote-unquote difficult followup to his blockbuster 1975 LP Born to Run. Bruce wrote the album’s songs (along with, like, a gazillion others) while living on a farm in Homdel, just north of his Asbury Park stomping grounds. These new digs came in the wake of Born to Run‘s massive success, but rather than following the 70s rock cliche of songs bemoaning success — and before diving into the nostalgia-laden body of work that became The River — Springsteen used Darkness to focus even harder on the lives of those who he grew up around, the hard-working regular people looking for a break.

The doc included a short live set filmed inside the empty carousel house on Asbury’s Casino Pier, and the chipped and cracked grandeur of the building at sundown provided a perfect setting for these songs about the endurance of faded glory. It’s worth Netflixing — possibly a double feature with The Wrestler — whether you’re a fan of The Boss, or you’re just interested in seeing a different take on that place where the ocean meets the sky. 

The first album I bring you in this week’s collection of Bandcamp finds — a collection admittedly heavy on rock and folk — also comes from the Jersey shore, and gives us an alternate slant on it, while the subsequent records mix moods from joyous jagged rock to spacious soundscapes.


CHIAROSCURO

Katie Morris hails from Tom’s River, New Jersey. One of my favorite photographers — acclaimed rock and roll shooter Danny Clinch — is also a native of Tom’s River. I wonder if there’s a connection there, or if it’s just coincidental that Morris named her one-woman project after a bit of photography terminology that references light and shadow. In any case, Morris is an emotive singer-songwriter whose compositions inhabit zones of echo and reflection. She made this EP in a beach house garage and in a Philadelphia apartment, and its best moments — the gliding “Empty Apartment,” the expansive closer “Grinding My Teeth,” the melancholic centerpiece “From The Garage” — are wonderfully textured mixes of electronic loops and otherworldly guitar patterns; think Juliana Barwick, think Julien Baker. Think space, sadness and a contemplative calm.

MIKE SPACE

“If I seem scared now,” sings this Philly songwriter, “how will I feel in the end?” With a mix of acoustic and electric tones, four-track fuzz and a distinctively world-weary warble, Mike Space’s A few fractured views EP gives me strong vibes of early Modest Mouse. Like Isaac Brock and co., Space takes a quirky pop approach to exploring nerve-wracking existential spaces, attempting to make sense of every day sadness, loneliness and unfulfillment. Are there more pressing problems in the world? Absolutely. But that doesn’t invalidate the personal yet universal concerns unpacked here.

TALK LOUDER!

The flipside to sad folk, of course, is super poppy and peppy rock and roll. But the best rock is catchy only on the surface, lyrically digging into zones more distraught and dark. The four Reading, Pennsylvania dudes in Talk Louder! do a bit of that in their debut EP Listen, recorded at The Headroom with Kyle Pulley and Shane Woods. And while I wouldn’t say they go all-out dark in this set, their Strokes-y jams will have you bobbing your head and bouncing around to room as they vent about frustrations and feelings of despondency.

MAGGIE MAE

You’ll see a banjo, a mandolin, a ukulele and an acoustic guitar on the cover image of this demo from local singer-songwriter Maggie Mae, and she uses pretty much all of them over the course of its six songs. It’s a poppy and polished set that traipses across folk, blues, funk and piano balladry, if a bit conventionally so — on subsequent releases, I imagine she’ll find more focus sonically and develop her voice a bit more strongly — but as an initial showing of a talented individual, this is promising stuff. Per Bandcamp, she performs at Fishtown’s wonderful Front Street Cafe tomorrow.

SECRET NUDIST FRIENDS

If they haven’t already shared a bill, this Philly garage rock three-piece would fit nicely on a show with the aforementioned Talk Louder! Denizens of South Philly show space Tralfamadore, Secret Nudist Friends — Matty Klauser on guitar, Brian Hullihen on drums and Andy Slepman on bass — also do the swaggery aughties retro rock thing, mixing suave crooner melodies and screaming licks. Their new Susan EP collects four songs about romance and lust and the troublesome intersections of the two, whether its meeting a new crush at a downtown gig or a mall in suburbia.

LASHES

To bring it back to a space of quiet contemplation as we close this week’s column — and truly, there is no shortage of contemplative instrumental music from Philly on Bandcamp — we’ll introduce you to the ambient three-piece Lashes. A multi-instrumental project of Zach Webber, Steve DiGregorio and Michael Knight, the three-years-in-the-making LP Flies Growing In The Butterscotch surfaced this weekend. Recorded in kitchens and bedrooms with kazoos and omnichords, this is a totally beguiling set of sounds and moods.

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