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Tuning In: How Philadelphian Liz Ciavolino uses music to foster community and activism

Ciavolino is a harpist and organizer of local shows, such as the CADBI benefit shows occurring this winter at W/N W/N (Photo by the author)
Ciavolino at Ahimsa House in West Philly | Photo by Kate Bracaglia for WXPN

Liz Ciavolino is who you want as your neighbor. The 20-something Philadelphian is all about fostering community, whether it’s organizing DIY shows in her backyard, playing for tiny, living room crowds, or getting involved in local politics. For her latest project, a series of benefit concerts for the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, it’s a little of all three—the series, which kicks off January 17, aims to raise awareness for prison sentencing reform as well as introduce Philadelphians to local talent.

For Ciavolino, it’s a natural pairing. A musician since childhood, whose interest in grassroots activism was sparked in college, she grew frustrated upon graduation when she felt forced to pick between the two. Until she realized she didn’t have to.

“When you’re in a band, you can attach your name to so many things. So why not attach it to something important?” explains Ciavolino, who fronts her own band, Liz & The Lost Boys, when not teaching music. Continue reading →

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The Key’s Year-End Mania: Kate Bracaglia’s top 5 Spotify discoveries of 2015

Clockwise from left: WIN WIN (photo by Alice Proujansky, via the band's Facebook page); Letissier (center, via the band's Instagram); exmagician (via the band's Facebook page); Dirty Ghosts (photo by Liz Caruana, via the band's website); and Screaming Peaches (photo by Ann Beasley, via the band's Facebook page)
Clockwise from left: WIN WIN (photo by Alice Proujansky, via the band’s Facebook page); Héloïse Letissier (center, via the band’s Instagram); exmagician (via the band’s Facebook page); Dirty Ghosts (photo by Liz Caruana, via the band’s website); and Screaming Peaches (photo by Ann Beasley, via the band’s Facebook page)

Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2015 incredible. Today, Key contributor Kate Bracaglia shares five musicians she found on Spotify in 2015.

2015 was all about discoveries. This year, I discovered the best way to cook Brussels sprouts (with ginger and soy); the best spot in South Philly for Manhattans (the revamped Triangle Tavern); and re-discovered 9 years of That 70s Show re-runs on Netflix (remember this episode?) I also became a Spotify subscriber, and through the streaming service discovered dozens of bands that I probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise, who helped soundtrack my year. Here are five of my faves from 2015. Continue reading →

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Summertime Sips and Summertime Sounds: Commonwealth Choir

The author, with Commonwealth Choir (via @BookishKate's Instagram)
The author, with Commonwealth Choir (via @BookishKate’s Instagram)

Summertime Sips and Summertime Sounds is our occasional, seasonal foray into summer vibes with our fave local “summertime” bands, in which we meet up, share a drink, and revel in the sunny weather (check out past editions here). Today, as summer gives way to fall, we catch up with Fishtown band Commonwealth Choir.

I wasn’t very cool in high school, and for the most part I used to hate waking up for class in the mornings. But I remember feeling oddly liberated come summertime, when there were no cliques stalking the hallways and I could lounge around the backyard or go on drives with my friends—usually to the diner (it was Jersey) or down the highway to see Saves the Day or Ben Folds at the Starland Ballroom.

Commonwealth Choir (mostly) hail from Doylestown, PA, where members Davis Jameson Howley, Nick Cislak, and Wil Chamuris went to high school together (Maurizio Mazza hails from Brick Township, NJ and Andrew Torre—who’s not present for our interview—is from Philly). They too spent summers driving around the suburbs, looking for trouble—or at least a spot to grab pizza, and maybe bowl a few games. Years later, it’s clear they still value these same experiences—spontaneous, joyful nights with friends. Continue reading →

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South Philly’s That Dream Was Our Life finds beauty in the banal

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That Dream Was Our Life | photo by RayAna Park | via facebook.com/ThatDreamWasOurLife

For years now, Philly has been a nurturing environment for DIY and bedroom musicians, from the orchestral pop of A Sunny Day in Glasgow to the GBV-inspired punk nuggets of former Temple student Alex G. On the smaller, quieter side of things is James Cuartero, who writes and performs under That Dream Was Our Life, and who for 2 years now has been self-releasing simple, lovely songs mostly drawn from his life in South Philadelphia.

In the past 20 months, Cuartero’s released 11 EPs, with a 12th due this week, all self-recorded on his iPhone from his South Philly bedroom. Each EP—whose names range from Inside Us There Is a Word We Cannot Pronounce and That Is Who We Are to We Are Very Happy Together—contains four to six songs, which run the gamut from quirky electro-pop jewels to gripping, melancholy melodies. That’s 60 songs total, in less than 2 years—although Cuartero tells me has many more ready to go. Later this fall, he hopes to collect 10 or 12 of his favorite and release them as his debut LP.

Continue reading →

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Summertime Sips and Summertime Sounds: The Bul Bey

The Bul Bey
The Bul Bey

Summertime Sips and Summertime Sounds is our occasional, seasonal foray into summer vibes with our fave local “summertime” bands, in which we meet up, share a drink, and revel in the sunny weather (check out past editions here). Today we catch up with rising West Philly emcee The Bul Bey.

South Philly’s the best around the holidays, when row homes battle for “brightest” and “most festive,” and Old City’s gorgeous in the spring, when the national park gardens come alive. But I’ll take West Philly in the summer hands down, when everything is green and lush and farmers’ markets dot Baltimore Ave., yet the bars remain comparatively empty, the college kids and shore-goers all away for the season. Is it a coincidence that The Fresh Prince, in West Philadelphia born and raised, chose summertime as the subject of his epic, seasonal anthem?  Is there anywhere east of 40th you’d rather than be than your friend’s giant, wrap-around porch, drinking a beer, after Ethiopian / Eritrean / Vietnamese food at Gojjos / Dahlak / Vietienne?

Amir Richardson, who performs under the name The Bul Bey, is like Smith in that he grew up in West Philly; unlike Smith, he still lives there now. In fact, his neighborhood is the subject of his breakout music video “Where I’m From,” a lively and complex portrayal of a place where, yeah, you better lock your doors—but where there’s also a real sense of community, whether hanging with your crew at a house party or laughing at your drunk uncle’s block party dance moves. The video, with its bright colors and enthusiastic participants (Bey tells me he did not instruct the kids to dance; they just did it) is sort of the ultimate tribute to summers in Philadelphia. So who better to talk summer vibes with than Richardson, who not only created a new summer classic, but is also one of our very fave rising hip-hop artists in the city right now? Continue reading →

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Summertime Sips and Summertime Sounds: Cheerleader

Cheerleader
Cheerleader

Summertime Sips and Summertime Sounds is our occasional, seasonal foray into summer vibes with our fave local “summertime” bands, in which we meet up, share a drink, and revel in the sunny weather (check out past editions here). Today we catch up with indie pop group Cheerleader; read on for our adventure.

I have very fond memories of summers circa 5th or 6th grade, hanging with my best friend Katie N., pouring over the class yearbook and selecting summer crushes, then planning to casually bump into them at the pool—and taking quizzes in Seventeen magazine with titles like “What kind of a flirt are you?” (not an answer: an awkward one).

Our favorite music back then was Madonna, Celine Dion, and The Crystals, and the soundtrack to Grease—songs about romance and young love, which seemed like the Most Important Thing Ever at the time. Cheerleader weren’t a band yet back then—but if they were, I imagine we would have adored them, their airy melodies and yearning choruses an elegant reinterpretation of our own tween angst. (Also we would have thought they were dreamy).

Cheerleader first caught our attention a little over a year back with carefree single “Perfect Vision” (read our 2014 interview with them here), then proceeded to hold us captive with a burgeoning collection of perfect pop gems. Their new record The Sunshine of Your Youth is a breezy collection of tunes inspired by “the nostalgic gloss you put on the past”; it’s also essential listening for Sunday drives and sunny mornings and anytime you need a pick-me-up. Continue reading →

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The Key’s Year-End Mania: Kate Bracaglia’s top 5 post-show brunch spots in Philly

Brunch at South Philly's Cantina Los Caballitos (photo via the author's Instagram: @BookishKate)
Brunch at South Philly’s Cantina Los Caballitos (photo via the author’s Instagram: @BookishKate)

Year-End Mania is the Key’s survey of the things below the surface that made 2014 awesome. In this installment, Key contributor Kate Bracaglia shares her favorite post-concert eateries of the year.

 Live music and brunch are two things I take very seriously (as anyone stalking my Instagram might discover). There are few things I love less than being front and center at a show, feeling the vibrations wash over my entire body…except for perhaps a perfect omelet and a Bloody Mary.

On weekends when I’m NOT recovering from a post-show hangover (I swear there are some!) I’m flexible about my brunch options. Need me to wake up early to beat the crowds at Sabrina’s or Green Eggs? I’m down. Want to soak up rays while waiting for our table in Morning Glory’s “spillover” garden? Hand me my shades. Feel like classing it up for the Center City crowd at Parc or Kanella? I have just the sundress in mind.

But for the morning after a show, when your head is a little fuzzy and you need coffee, stat, I have a different game plan in mind. Continue reading →

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How mushroom soup and an optimistic work ethic keep Courtney Barnett moving

Courtney Barnett | Photo via facebook.com/courtneybarnettmusic
Courtney Barnett | Photo via facebook.com/courtneybarnettmusic

Courtney Barnett sometimes gets saddled with the “slacker” tag—she’s got this shaggy hair and these boxy tees, and these slow, shuffling bass lines that amble lazily across your eardrums, like maybe they had two beers and it’s a Saturday. Really though, she’s anything but—the Aussie crooner founded her own record label, Milk Records, while in her early 20’s; now, barely into her mid-20s, she’s emerged as somewhat of a workaholic, playing no less than 64 shows since I saw her last February, in addition to working on a new record.

“I don’t reckon you would know anything about me if I wasn’t moderately hard-working,” she once quipped.

Hard work probably got Courtney there a little sooner. But it’s her songwriting—and quirky, relatable lyrics—that did most of the heavy lifting. Continue reading →

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Lily Allen brings charm and giant baby bottles to the E-Factory

Lily Allen | Photo by Kate Bracaglia | underwaterexplosions.blogspot.com
Lily Allen | Photo by Kate Bracaglia | underwaterexplosions.blogspot.com

In some ways, British singer Lily Allen is your typical pop star: she’s sold millions of records worldwide and attracted tons of media attention thanks to her wild partying and antics; if you didn’t know any better you might compare her to Miley Cyrus (in fact, she opened for Cyrus on her 2014 Bangerz tour).

But look at it another way and she’s totally different: where much of pop music is based on artifice and least-common-denominator lyrics, Allen is real and quirky; where most pop stage shows are carefully choreographed extravaganzas, Allen is spontaneous and down-to-earth, her strong personality a large part of what makes her so magnetic. Friday night, Allen brought her unique view and vision to life at the Electric Factory, dazzling fans with witty lyrics and candid commentary. Continue reading →