Here at The Key, we spend a lot of time digging through every new release from Philadelphia that shows up on Bandcamp. Periodically, we’ll check in to present you with the most interesting, most unusual and overall best of the bunch: this is Items Tagged Philadelphia.
Looking back, I totally would have done a few things differently. I would not have set an arbitrary “weekly” benchmark to report back to you on the weird, wild and wonderfully ear-catching Philly artists I find in my Bandcamp digging. My weeks are unpredictable at WXPN HQ; the only constant is an already high volume of listening, reading, writing, recording and editing, before this project even comes into play. I also would have made a more valiant effort to keep up with these artists I uncovered throughout the year; some were easy to follow (shoutouts Sea-Offs, MHYSA, S-21, Erica Gibson) and some I haven’t checked in on since initially spotlighting them.
I might have tried to be more discerning, choosing fewer releases each week so I’d have space and time to reflect and write more about the ones I was highlighting. I would have found better things to say to introduce each column; I should have STFU about the weather, which seems to be a de facto entry point to many of them. Get it together, man.
But for something that started as a New Years’ Resolution whim twelve months ago — ie. give a listen to every single release posted to Bandcamp with a Philadelphia tag in 2017, report back on the good stuff — I’m decently pleased with how it played out. With this, the 32nd edition of Items Tagged Philadelphia, we’ve written about 282 releases from the Philadelphia scene, all from artists that had never been covered on The Key before up to that point. We’ve left practically no genre uncovered — jazz collectives to orchestral ensembles to beat tapes and disco edits, along with the standard rock, folk, rap, punk and more — showcasing the rich spectrum of creators and content coming out of our geographical region. Even on slow weeks, we’ve avoided defaulting to schlocky middle-of-the-road dude-rock of which there is so, so much on Bandcamp (or at least, I like to think we’ve avoided it). I’ve introduced myself to artists I would not have otherwise heard, who it’s been a thrill to follow.
So I’m happy to report that, yes, Items Tagged Philadelphia will continue into 2018. Note the amended intro above — the goal is now “periodic” check-ins…realistically, that means something between biweekly and monthly, never farther apart than that. I look forward to discovering another 280-something artists next year. But before we get to that, and before we get to our collective New Year’s Eves, let’s hit one final roundup of Items Tagged Philadelphia from 2017.
This Philly singer, songwriter and guitarist has been around the punk scene for a couple years, releasing solo projects and gigging in bands like Solarized. Their most recent release is very stripped down and back-to-basics in a Billy Bragg kind of way; Alvarez’s engaging vocal, the warm-tone rumble of an electric guitar, narrative songwriting in the vein of folk/punk crossover artists like Gaslight Anthem, The Loved Ones and Mischief Brew. You’ll hear great covers, too — a traditional one, “All You Fascists are Bound To Lose,” which has bee done over the years by Woody Guthrie and Bragg, as well as the wonderful “Midnight Radio” from John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which Alvarez does terrific justice to.
This Philly singer-songwriter debuts with Run The Race, a poppy collection of acoustic-forward songs that mixes in countrified yearning (“Two Minds”) with infectious Soweto-styled licks as filtered through Graceland (the title track) and shimmering vocal harmonies (throughout, pretty much). Emily Drinker gigs occasionally around town, and appears next at Manayunk’s Dawson Street Pub on February 2nd.
Electronic soundscaper and beatmaker Noah Selwyn is a protege of Slit Jockey co-founder Starkey, and under the name Agent Zero, uses that tutelage to spin body-moving electronic pulses and patchworks into pop anthems. This set, Ones and Zeroes, has a fierce collage-esque feel — a bit of trap, a bit of breakbeat and trance — and showcases vocal collaborators including rapper Buddy Leezle (on “December 16th”) and singer Kachina (on the glorious “Fever”).
Speaking of Buddy Leezle, he teamed up with producer Chris Are to form the duo Capricorn Rising, and their collaborative self-titled release is a barrel of fun. Mixing astrology-oriented samples and playful boom-bap beats, this is a set of party-rocking nuggets in the vein of the Ultramagnetic crew of days of yore; Leezle’s lyrics here are kind of free-associative, goofy and filled with pop culture quips like “Get it poppin’, Janis Joplin.”
EARTH TO VIOLET
There are a couple moments on Rilo Kiley’s classic The Execution of All Things where a song is introduced with minimal arrangements of low instrumentation, murmuring keys and a telephone-voice effect on singer and songwriter Jenny Lewis. If that vibe lasted over the course of a full song — or full EP, for that matter — it’d be Stranger by multi-instrumental songwriter Kelly Green’s project Earth To Voilet. Themes on this three-song set are all about self-doubt, longing, and loneliness offset by a heaping of attitude, determination and self-reliance.
These post-hardcore lads from the Philly region are keyed up, pissed off and channeling existential dread through fuzz pedals and heavily compressed vocals. They actually do use the phrase “existential dread” in a lyric at one point, so perhaps the sentiments get a bit on the heavy-handed side, but that’s not necessarily inappropriate for their style. With propulsive arrangements from the At The Drive-In school and vocals straight out of The Downward Spiral, bandmates Eric Haag, Timothy Leo, Matt Leo, Mike Howard reflect on ideas of life, normalcy and ennui, and they do it loudly.
SOMEWHERE OFF JAZZ STREET
While Becoming Invisible has possibly the least eye-catching album art I’ve encountered over the course of this project — a grey gradient, a generic italic font — I’d much prefer a blah cover that contains music this sweet, versus the other way around. The theme of this collection (the mysterious band’s second from the month of December) is “for those late late nights when time stands still,” and the mix of languid freeform drums, whirring tremolo guitar and back-alley saxophone totally conjures Barry Adamson, Angelo Badalamenti and film noir.
Confrontational electronic loops, aggressive rhythms, caustic screams to the effect of “ILOVEMYATTITUDEILOVEMYATTITUDEILOVEMYATTITUDE”…wow wow wow, I am here for this. A bit Atari Teenage Riot, a bit Le Tigre, a bit Pony Pants (for any West Philly peeps who remember them), this short and gripping set was recorded live at South Philly’s R&D Vinyl back in October and its songs delve into themes of abuse, objectification, resentment and resilience.
Beat tape time, y’all. The M A L A Y A set from local producer EggsJumbo is tripped-out and prismatic — cinematic strings, jazzy keys and big band horns, pitch-shifted vocals slowed down indiscernibly. It’s like the sounds of a head cold (or NyQuil coma), set to a good beat.
A Philly MC who was born and raised in Liberia, it seems like LibFOREIGN chose their stage moniker to celebrate heritage while also reflecting the occasionally outsider status that comes with it in an American hip-hop scenes. The mission, though, is bridging that gap, and the KNOW ME NOW EP fuses R&B hooks and high-energy trap production with West African sounds and styles, and the MC spits in a heady fusion of American English and Liberian English dubbed Kolorees.
Inspired by the self-reflective nihilism of Trainspotting — the hook on “Sick Boy” includes the quote “Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning” — Philly’s Paris Parker is a melodic rapper who released the introspective Nikki, 23 this month. It’s mellow and minimal, with slow structures and a lot of beautiful open space setting the tone haunting meditations on the artist’s languid self-doubt in a Smiths / Death Cab sort of way. The vocals are occasionally overly high in the mix, and it’s unclear whether this is simply the mix leaving something to be desired or whether it was an artistic choice to create a raw and vulnerable mood. Whichever the case, it’s a minor flaw, and the record lives up to Paris Parker’s mission statement: “i’m sure we could resurrect ourselves from our online presences. a jangly, dark tale of redemption.”
ALONG THE WAY
Playing punchy modern rock with serious emo leanings, Philly four-piece Along the Way gets introspective at high volume on Along The Way, its debut LP released this month. Made up of Matt Day on guitar and vocals, Bee Niranon on lead guitar, Chris Olm on bass and Jason Manton on drums, the band loves hard rock and unashamed about it — dig the Slash-style guitar solo from “On Better Days” — but they’re also into striking a mood and stretching it out, as you hear in the seven-minute expanse “Thief In The Night,” which has a curious Jimmy Eat World via Mogwai thing going on.
Prof. is the vocalist, Patron is the production specialist, and the second collaboration from the local experimental hip-hop duo puts heady observations to a psychedelic backdrop that’s easy to lose oneself in. Cue up “The Prayer” for a pointed dissection of wealth inequality and questionable politics in modern society; check also “Everywhere” for a suave and smooth celebration of self-love and self-determination.
When Marina Murayama Nir isn’t editing the art-and-social-justice blog Cultureworks, they’re making music under their middle name. With spectral keyboards, tight 808 beats and a measured vocal, Murayama reflects on identity on “Fragments,” the lead single from Unfurl, their debut album set for a January release. Recorded in collaboration with Items Tagged Philadelphia alum Elaine Rasnake, the album explores “themes of matriarchy, connection and separation to one’s cultures, moments of weakness, strength, and healing,” with a goal, in the artist’s words, “creating space for those caught in between or those finding themselves on the ‘outside.'”
“If you wanna know / I’ll be at the show / standing all alone / too shy to go home.” These words are delivered by Leadrs frontperson Jim Atchley before going into the song’s incredibly catchy, two-word refrain that offers a message of hope, consolation and understanding: “It’s Alright.” Atchley comes to Philly from Columbia, Missouri, and uses the new BPD EP to explore borderline personality disorder — as they put it, the work “is an exercise in symbolic musical parallels between the work and the illness.” A heavy task, and the crushing “Everything Sucks” reflects that weight, but the music is also rock-out-able and contagiously energetic, using volume and and hooks and unflinching words as a beacon. Listen below, and see them live at All Night Diner on January 13th.
This four-piece kicks out swaggery, retro-70s rock and roll in the vein of their Philly neighbors Sheer Mag — though perhaps without the same degree of radical politics. Which isn’t to say that those themes and concerns aren’t here among bandmates Greg, Hanna, Mack and Zoë…they’re just downplayed in favor of snarling garage rock that owes as much to Cheap Trick as it does to Mudhoney. Play it loud.
This instrumental duo plays a song for each of the seasons on this EP, encapsulating the year with a collection of four acoustic expanses in the vein of Jack Rose and Meg Baird. It’s playful, its reflective, it’s a chilled-out joy to listen to.
When Sagar Vasishtha isn’t playing keys in Soft Idiot, they’re crafting sick beats and contemplative rhymes under the name Bumsweat. While the project’s October release PROPERMEDITATION kept the rap side of things on the forefront, this month they returned with BOOGSLOOPS1000, an instantly digable instrumental collection, gathering a half dozen chilled out dance tracks with dreamy vibraphone and keyboard partss shimmering over old school beats. “Skrong (This Is Why UR Here Trust Me)” carries some totally transportive Theviery Corporation / Faithless / Massive Attack vibrations, and on the basis of this track alone I would love to see Bumsweat share a bill with Overwinter, who graced our previous installment of Items Tagged Philadelphia. Worth noting: the origins of the project are a bit obscure, and Vashishtha writes that, when they first began dabbling in production, a legendary beat tape series called Boog’s Loops served as an inspiration, but has since vanished from accessibility. “This project imagines a universe where this acclaimed series of tapes continued and grew x1000, culminating with this ultimate release.” If this doesn’t make sense, don’t worry (though you should probably read more, to paraphrase Steve Coogan) — this set is pure ear candy, whatever frame of reference you’re coming at it from.
And finally, if you love the timeless indie rock anthems of The Thermals and their brethren but wish Portland wasn’t so very far away, fear not — there’s never been a shortage of that here in Philly, and new trio Mt. Vengeance nails the vibe remarkably powerfully. Made up of Rich Fravel on guitars and vocals, Brian Campbell on bass and Nick Santore on drums, the songs are jagged and jaunty, with soaring melodies and layered licks that are enriched by contributions from Art DiFuria of The Photon Band, singer-songwriter rock-and-roller Andrew Lipke and a host of others. The 15-track album was rocked at Fishtown locals The Record Lounge and Miner Street Recording, and sounds appropriately asskicking.
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