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.
The first time we had a snowstorm this year, I saw a flurry (hah) of activity when searching for Philadelphia artists on Bandcamp. That was, like, barely two inches of snow. This time, we got enough that the region went into full-on shut down mode, and once again the Philly tag is poppin’.
I don’t know that the two are entirely related — I do know that at least one local singer-songwriter, Michael Youngkin, used the day to write, record and mix an entire multi-instrumental ten-song album, and while some points of it definitely sound like an album written/recorded/mixed in a day, other parts of it are actually quite fantastic, and it’s an impressive project in any case. Other artists, it seems, dug into their vaults of yesteryear and dusted off unreleased projects for a digital / streaming era. And others still were probably planning on releasing their jams regardless, and the day off was coincidental.
Of course the winter hermitage is at this point behind us once again, possibly/probably/god-I-hopefully for the year at this point. Last night I stood around a fire pit in Roxborough with a group of old and new friends, eating a plate of corned beet and cabbage (yes, that says BEET; thank you, Superfun Times Vegan Holiday Cookbook), watching the snow melt and ducking inside for a terrific acoustic set from Philly roots rockers Levee Drivers. They’ve got a record on the way; new music, it seems, is always around the bend. This week I found a dozen new releases that stood out; hip-hop to contemporary classical to doom-y nihilistic metal and country. That’s a lot to tear though, so let’s dispense with the chit-chat and dive in.
THE PRIVATE SECTOR
Philly / Wilmington rapper and producer Stephen Dallas recorded Welcome to Jan Brady as The Private Sector back in 2006 and gave it a new release this week. Per the WIP samples that pepper the album, its title is derived from a sports world slag that New York apparently taunts Philly with; Jan Brady being the insecure middle sister of the Brady Bunch who spends a lot of the show sulking. (As a middle child myself, I can totally relate.) Whatever the case may be with our collective emotional / psychological complex, this is a skillful set that bridges rap and soul. Breezy beats and samples back Dallas’ nimble bars, alongside outstanding hooks by Yvonne Bay and Mary Harris. My fave is “I’ll Make U Say,” a song constructed around Art Of Noise’s ever-relevant “Moments In Love.”
This is one zen MC; Jordan’s flow is laid back and chill, but moves at a fast enough BPM that you’ve really got to sprint to keep up. With trippy production rooted in house music and ambient synth sounds, In Transition truly stands out from the Bandcamp pack, and in general. In a time where aspiring rappers tend to either go towards ultra-contemporary trap soundscapes or fiercely retro boom-bap, its great to see somebody offering a third approach to the game.
MEKZ UNO “THE BLACK MAGE”
Speaking of third approaches — or fourth, or fifth — the CHNWK tape from Philly beatmaker Mekz Uno grabbed me from its first seconds. A 27-minute expanse containing a dozen or so individual, untitled segments, it marries that classic boom-bap backing to out-of-this-world source material: cinematic strings, hyper isolated vocals, and acid jazz vibrations of the FLYLO school.
JASPER STRING QUARTET
When it comes to contemporary classical and chamber music, my vocabulary is woefully inadequate. My use of the word “chamber” is probably even laughable here, and I hope that the members of Philadelphia’s Jasper String Quartet will forgive me my limitations, since their Unbound LP, released to Bandcamp on Friday, is a stunner. Comprised of J. Freivogel and Sae Chonabayashi on violin, Sam Quintal on viola and Rachel Henderson Freivogel on cello, this ensemble works its way across drones, arcing melodies and precipitous dips and dives, delivering heart-racing compositions (Missy Mazzoli’s “Death Valley Junction” is a particularly gripping one) at a Kronos Quartet level of intensity. Formed at Oberlin, named after a park in Alberta and currently the Professional Quartet in Residence at Temple University’s Center for Gifted Young Musicians, JSQ celebrates the release of Unbound at NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge on March 28th; its next Philly date is April 4th at the Art Alliance.
Contemporary classical of a more solitary sort, Julie Maxwell’s contemplative piano piece “Arches in the Ocean” provides an alluring look at what her forthcoming fifth album is going to sound like. Minimal, melancholy and mood-setting in a quietly powerful way.
Another a piece of studious musicianship, though (much) louder. Philly metal duo Sarattma is a project of Matt Hollenberg — of prog locals iNFiNiEN — and drummer Sara Neidorf. This four song set riffs, roars and rages over a half hour, being doomy when it wants to, but most often kicking out the jams.
Philly’s McCann Painter released this gothic-tinged set of melodic meditations on grief, mental health, addiction and fear set to dynamic arrangements that soar as easily as they crush. Equal parts emo, metal, post-rock and poetry.
Somebody with the first name Turner is behind the Philadelphia project Ramble Tamble. Beyond that, I can’t find much information about them, but they posted three collections on Bandcamp this week, ranging from instrumental acoustic guitar pieces to askew compositions with operatic vocals. My favorite of the bunch, Life Is An Obscure Hobo, sound-collages from a variety of source material for a heady combination of beat poetry and acid jazz.
Previously heard on Mike’s Mail Bag, the new music show spotlight from XPN’s Mike Vasilikos, this Philly rock trio put out their second EP, Circadian, this week. Made up of Greg Adams and Derrick Dieso on guitar and vocals, and Austin Paragas on bass, Tioga sounds heavily informed by The National’s Alligator or Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights — which, I didn’t even know that we were at the point of retro aughties rock yet, but I suppose it has been a decade. In any case, production on this project by Paragas and Rishabh Bhan Singh is impeccable and the songs are catchy and well-played. A fine introduction.
When I think of empty stables and Philadelphia, I think of the warehouse in the Eraserhood where the Old City horse-and-buggies seem to return to when night falls, and I get momentarily sad. Empty Stable the band, though, is a country rock outfit led by Tom Contarino, and its self-titled debut EP approaches the genre in a very Sturgill Simpson spirit: reserved in demeanor, classic in approach, beautifully arranged, but fired up beneath the surface.
We’ll close this week’s Items Tagged Philadelphia with two for-funsies projects. This one, from singer-guitarist Max Barth’s Dog Brothers project, is a collection of covers (titled One Term Presidents, wishful thinking perhaps?) of songs by The Mountain Goats (“Cotton”), Brandi Carlile (“The Story”), Bruce Springsteen (“My City of Ruins”) and more, recorded in a lo-fi four-track kind of way. Tastefully curated, heart-warmingly executed.
This Philly producer and beatmaker dropped RMX on our collective snow day. Again, I don’t know if it had been in the works or if it’s something he did as a result of the weather, but it’s an imaginative re-contextualizing of classic 90s rap verses from Nas, Biggie and more. My fave is the nod to Method Man’s “How High” set to Silver Convention’s disco classic “Fly Robin Fly.”
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