XPoNential Artist Spotlight: Strand of Oaks talks prepping for tour, summer hangouts and the songs that didn’t end up on Heal


It’s pretty much impossible to miss the gleeful buoyancy in Strand of Oaks frontman Tim Showalter’s voice when chatting with him. Maybe it’s something encoded into his personality, or maybe he’s still riding the waves of critical and commercial acclaim that the fourth Strand of Oaks record, Heal (Dead Oceans), has been generating since its release last month. Regardless, his cheer is infectious, and that acclaim for HEAL, an examination of catharsis steeped in the burst and bloom of a decades-spanning rock ‘n’ roll (as opposed to “rock”) tradition, is well deserved. But in that month since its release, Showalter has been taking this summer relatively easy, and was happy to catch up with The Key to chat about HEAL, how he manages his songwriting, and his (lack of) preparation for a nearly three-month tour, which starts this Saturday at the XPoNential Music Festival.

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Aaron West: A punk popster’s personal transformation into a Llewyn Davis styled troubadour

Photo courtesy of the artist.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Wonder Years’ 2011 release, Suburbia: I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, with its frequent references and allusions to Allen Ginsberg’s marathon poem “America,” felt like a turning point in singer Dan Campbell’s songwriting. There was something about the way he appropriated Ginsberg’s text to work with his own that broke out of the traditional pop punk tropes. The next Wonder Years record, last year’s The Greatest Generation, established a wide thematic scope in its choruses, couplets and bridges, all reprised in a seven-minute closing track, “I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral” — not totally unlike musical theatre. Aside from penning relentlessly catchy pop punk songs, Suburbia and Generation proved Campbell not only capable of viewing The Big Picture in writing a record; he’s highly literate in it.

That’s why Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, Campbell’s conceptual folk-rock solo release, doesn’t come as much of a surprise. We Don’t Have Each Other (out today on Hopeless follows a very rough year in the life of Aaron West, Campbell’s proxy and all-around Llewyn Davis-troubadour-type sad sap. Gone are the heavy, three-guitar-strong power chords that always trustingly flank Campbell’s voice — always vulnerable and without shame — in the Wonder Years. In their place, We Don’t Have Each Other is flush with keys, horns, pedal steel guitars, banjos and what would almost be a heavy-handed smack to the face telling you, “This is Americana! This is a departure!” if the whole thing wasn’t so expertly executed. The opening track “Our Apartment” delivers all of this before the song is even half finished.

Campbell may be trying on hats, but they look pretty good on him and complement his figure. Part of what makes this record work so well is that while the whole idea here is to assume a character, an identity, by no means does that experiment isolate any listener knowledgeable of Campbell’s past work. Instead of making some swift, stylistic left turn, these songs instead feel filtered through that lens of trying something new. “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe” and “Runnin’ Scared” feel comfortable in the way the alt-country instrumentation is organized; these could be stripped-down Wonder Years songs, even. But it’s in the quieter, mid-tempo songs, in “Divorce and the American South” or “Get Me Out Of Here Alive,” that feel carry to most excitement, as they stray furthest from Campbell’s assumed comfort zone.
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Review: The Menzingers’ Rented World

menzingersRented World, the fourth full-length album from The Menzingers, is, for lack of a better word, big. That word can be construed in a few different ways. Yes, the track lengths themselves average in at a little bit longer (one song breaks the five-minute mark, a first for the Philly-by-way-of-Scranton punks) and they enlisted the audio muscle of producer Jon Low for this one, but there’s more to it than that. After three records, including 2012’s breakthrough On the Impossible Past, there’s a weight of confidence and precision laced throughout Rented World. And confidence allows songwriters to try some new things.

That idea presents itself pretty immediately on Rented World, especially when contrasted against On the Impossible Past’s Americana-leaning loose narrative of lyrical and melodic themes: Good things, nice things, American muscle cars, kids getting high, etc. Singer/guitarists Greg Barnett and Tom May keep the songs on Rented World decidedly contained. Barnett has mentioned in interviews recently that this was the first Menzingers album to not be solely written on an acoustic guitar; rather, songs were pieced and structured carefully instead of over a couple of chords. As a result, many tracks, with their riff-specific construction, feel like nods to ‘90s alt-rock – a fun direction to see The Menzingers explore.

But as with each Menzingers record, May and Barnett split songwriting duties nearly 50/50, and on Rented World, they continue to characterize their own differing methods. Continue reading →


Unlocked: 8 tips on recording and producing your own album from Modern Baseball

Modern Baseball | Photo by Allison Newbold |
Modern Baseball | Photo by Allison Newbold |

So here’s a sort of little-known fact about Modern Baseball: they record and produce their
music themselves.

Local studio luminaries Jonathan Low and Will Yip pitched in on You’re Gonna Miss It All when the album reached the mixing and mastering stages respectively, but all the initial tracking was done by the band itself. Vocalist/guitarist Jake Ewald and bassist Ian Farmer are both students at Drexel University in the Music Industry program. That means they spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of the recording process. We asked Ewald to share some tips on the recording process for other folks who choose to opt out on hiring an extra hand to man all the knobs and dials. Here’s what he had to say.

“As a pair of 20-year-old college ding dongs, we’d like to preface this by stating that we (for
the most part) still have no idea what we’re doing in the world of recording. But after recording the last two Modern Baseball records, it’s safe to say we learned a few things along the way. Here are some of the most important ones.” Continue reading →


Unlocked: Hanging out at home with Modern Baseball

Modern Baseball | Photo by Allison Newbold |
Modern Baseball | Photo by Allison Newbold |

Jake Ewald is a big fan of New Girl.

In fact, when he asks me what I think about the show, the Modern Baseball guitarist and co-vocalist lets out a long, resounding “Yyyeah” and pumps his fist when I safely tell him I think it’s a pretty cool program. From across their West Philly kitchen, cherubic Brendan Lukens, Modern Baseball’s other guitarist and co-vocalist, folds his arms and shakes his head knowingly.

“I’m coming around to it as of yesterday,” Lukens sighs. “Jake just keeps talking about it so I sat down the other day and started watching it and thought, ‘this is fucking stupid.’ I’m still not sold though. It’ll come on and I won’t go ‘ugh’ anymore, you know?” Drummer Sean Huber just laughs to himself as he digs through the refrigerator.

This appears to be the general tone over at Modern Baseball HQ, a house not too far north of Drexel University’s campus, in the week leading up to the release of Your Gonna Miss It All, the young, spritely, punkish group’s second full-length album. The pressure may be on, but these boys – Lukens, Ewald, Huber and bassist Ian Farmer, who had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t make the interview – are keeping things casual. Which is an impressive notion, considering how much is exactly on the band’s collective plate in the coming weeks and months.

Photo by Allison Newbold |
Photo by Allison Newbold |

The day after this interview is over, the band will be spending the rest of the week running around Philadelphia to shoot a video for “Your Graduation,” You’re Gonna Miss It All’s acid-spitting lead single, in an upwards of 10 locations, culminating in a performance scene at FDR Skate Park. “We’re shooting in all these different spots because the concept [of the video] is basically me getting broken up with over and over again,” Lukens chuckles. On March 5th, they’ll be heading out on a month-long national tour supporting local pop-punk heavyweights The Wonder Years. A couple weeks after that ends, they’ll be touring Europe for the first time with Real Friends and You Blew It!

Wait. Aren’t these guys still in school? Continue reading →


Unlocked: Watch Modern Baseball play a deep cut for Village Basement Sessions

Jake Ewald | Photo by Allison Newbold |
Jake Ewald | Photo by Allison Newbold |

Modern Baseball began back when Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens decided it might be fun to write and play some songs together. Keep in mind, this was only a couple short years before Ian Farmer and Sean Huber would round out the lineup and release two very successful records, including this week’s Unlocked subject, You’re Gonna Miss It All.

Before their first record, 2012’s Sports, was finished, Modern Baseball put out two songs on a split with fellow locals Marietta called Couple’s Therapy. One of these songs is called “It’s Cold Out Here.”

Here you’ll find Ewald and Lukens playing a stripped down “It’s Cold Out Here” as part of the Village Basement Sessions, a New Jersey-based collection of videos highlighting tri-state area artists playing songs in a warm, suburban basement. It’s a nice homage to Modern Baseball’s early days, before the pre-release sellouts and tours both national and European.

“It’s Cold Out Here” is an early entry into the band’s discography, but the track is already classic Modern Baseball, what with Ewald’s colloquial, illustrative scene-setting before some friends make a surprise appearance for the track’s refrain: “I told you I loved you just outside your mom’s place / You laughed then you felt bad as we sat there red-faced / I felt like a bitch so I told you to get out / But I guess Bren was right babe cause’ who’s laughing now.”

Best friends are the best friends.

Modern Baseball – “It’s Cold Out Here” from Village Basement Sessions on Vimeo.

You’re Gonna Miss it All is the subject of this week’s edition of Unlocked; download “Broken Cash Machine” in Monday’s post, read Tuesday’s album review, and check back tomorrow for an interview with the band!


Unlocked: Read The Key’s review of You’re Gonna Miss it All by Modern Baseball

a1051948489_10I tried to date a girl named Ilana in my sophomore year of high school.

By tried, I mean that we spent a lot of time together for a couple weeks right around midterms. I pretended to like Radiohead when we talked on AOL Instant Messenger (to win Cool Points with her) and she faked her laughs when I quoted Stella in her dad’s car (to shut me up, I guess). I knew she wasn’t into me; she was talking to another boy around the same time and I would often receive instant messages from her when he flaked on plans they made, hours after she cancelled our movie nights and
such. They ended up dating for a few years. It’s cool.

This kind of friend-zone sentiment appears pretty quickly and oddly specifically on Modern Baseball’s sophomore album, You’re Gonna Miss It All (Run For Cover). Here’s co-vocalist Brendan Lukens rattling off on a similar situation on opening track “Fine, Great”:

“I know that you just adore / Starting off with me / That way that there’s no
way that I’ll assume / That you’re wasting all of my time / To vent about your problems / Like how your Instagram stopped working / And how your friends bailed on you / But it was funny because it was the day you were supposed to hang with me.”

Yeah, about that.

This is Modern Baseball’s biggest asset, this hypersensitive lyrical attention to detail, coupled with knowing their way around a tune, that made 2012’s  Sports, their first record, quickly resonate (especially with other 20-somethings). But Sports was pieced together rather haphazardly. Being fully preconceived from the beginning as a full band, You’re Gonna Miss It All improves on all of Sports’ charms and nuances.

Lukens and Jake Ewald have a far more even spread on songs this time around, splitting vocal duties roughly in half. Their voices are pretty similar – not too eloquent and a little heavy on the vowels (adorkable, some might say). This only characterizes the songs even further, like Ewald’s punchline-spitting punk scene frustration on “Going to Bed Now” or when Lukens pulls a rhyme scheme fast one on us on “The Old Gospel Choir”: “Breaking up never felt so cruel / And now I’m tired and now I’m dead to… / Me.”

Sonically speaking, the record strays a bit from the greatly acoustic-tinged Sports; the band’s sound is fully fleshed out, particularly in the lead guitars, aided with mixing from Jon Low and Will Yip. Some quieter moments can be found in “Timmy Bowers” and the gorgeous closing track “Pothole,” but You’re Gonna Miss It All is largely a much louder affair. When we piece it all together though, You’re Gonna Miss It All captures a moment in awkward and wide-eyed youth with such empathy and approximation that you kind of have to stop and wonder if all young people essentially experience the same kind of heartbreak and anxieties in the 21st century before realizing that, yeah, I guess they do, and it’s cathartic to hear them be expounded on in such a familiar way.   Continue reading →


Unlocked: Download “Broken Cash Machine” from Modern Baseball’s You’re Gonna Miss It All

Modern Baseball | photo via band's Facebook
Modern Baseball | photo via band’s Facebook

When Jake Ewald starts daydreaming about “something cool” that might happen on “Broken Cash Machine,” the second track on Modern Baseball’s You’re Gonna Miss It All, it’s not what you’re thinking, at least at first: “The sun explodes / we die / the world ends.” But you get it though. You’re pacing around your living room on a Friday night, you recently went through a breakup that was probably your fault – what’s cooler than a solar apocalypse at this point? Whatever gets your mind off things.

Clocking in at just under two minutes, “Broken Cash Machine” cements the tone for Modern Baseball’s second LP: all colloquial meanderings and tightly-sewn songwriting from four funky West Philly boys, straddling the line between somewhat tired descriptors like “indie pop” and “pop punk.” The track is a clear indicator of the band’s growth from the short time they released Sports not too long ago.

And while the edges may be sharper this time around, Modern Baseball still keeps around its knack for words. Looking back on that Friday night at home, Ewald still hasn’t figured it out, not that it’s likely he would anyway. “My eyes burning holes through your old pictures,” he sings, likely referring to that well-worn Facebook stalking ritual. We’ve all done that. Right? I mean, uh, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

We’re taking a close look at You’re Gonna Miss It All here at The Key this week as part of our Unlocked series. Check back in tomorrow for an album review and later in the week for a video, an interview and more. As for now, grab a download of “Broken Cash Machine” below. For the next five days, it’s a free mp3 compliments of the band.


Digging up the past with Philly punk vets Ex Friends

Photo by Danny Flexner
Photo by Isaac Turner |

Historical context, and the role it plays as we view our own present, is important to Joel Tannenbaum. He teaches history at the Community College of Philadelphia – why wouldn’t it be? His fixation on the past and its relationship to the current state of things is evident right from the first few seconds of “Dirty Ben Franklin,” the opening track to Rules for Making up Words (Paper + Plastick), the first record from Tannenbaum’s Ex Friends, when he growls:

“If you listen closely, you’ll hear the sound / Of ghostly feet walking on the old hunting grounds / Then you’ll hear voices, troubled and vexed / With vague premonitions of what’s coming next”

“I’m really genuinely proud of that song,” Tannenbaum says. “I feel like it let me do a lot of different things at once that I think are important in songs. It’s about history, which is very important to me obviously. It’s about this city in a very particular way.” He stops for a second, before finishing his thought. “And it’s an anthem.”

There’s a distinct air of weariness and exhaustion that runs through Rules for Making up Words, but we’ll get to that in a second. Right now, a little bit of Ex Friends history.

The band was conceived backstage at 2011’s Riot Fest, where Tannenbaum was performing with a  Plow United, the popular power trio he played bass in during the mid-90s. The band played its first show in a dozen years for the festival, and after the set, Tannenbaum was talking to his friend, artist and drummer JP Flexner. He realized that he needed to start playing music again. Continue reading →


Getting to know The Smith Street Band (opening for Frank Turner tonight)

Photo via
Photo via

Let’s talk about The Smith Street Band for a little bit.

They’ve traveled a pretty long ways to join English folk rock romantic Frank Turner on his fall U.S. tour that’s hitting the Electric Factory on Friday. Like, Australia far. The Melbourne quartet have been playing a brand of heart-burning punk rock since 2009 – the kind that’s likely to be found highlighted during Gainesville, Florida’s annual Fest (which The Smith Street Band played this year) – and have two full-length albums under their belt, last year’s Sunshine & Technology and 2011’s No One Gets Lost Anymore (Poison City). They’re on tour with Turner (and his band, The Sleeping Souls) and Minneapolis crew Koo Koo Kanga Roo in support of their recently released EP, Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams (Poison City), a five-song entry into the Smith Street catalogue that shaves off the folk tinges the band has flashed in earlier releases.

We don’t need to waste time seeking out passion when listening to The Smith Street Band; vocalist Wil Wagner’s thickly coated Aussie accent hoists us by the shirt collar like a ‘90s playground bully would. Song lyrics as diary entries might be a tired cliché to use, but Wagner writes what he knows and, when anchored by the rest of the band, his words are arresting. “Ducks Fly Together,” a standout track from Dreams, finds Wagner confessing over a restlessly tapping lead guitar: “And I was so scared / To talk to your friends / Pretended that I was a real person / Trying to remember names / smiling and nodding / But I couldn’t kick the grin / From when you’d gone and kissed me quickly in the kitchen”.

Given Australia’s proximity to the rest of the world, it’s not out of hand that The Smith Street Band’s touring regiment finds them playing shows all over the world. It’s probably super demanding. But they’re entrenched in the constantly-growing, always-evolving punk scene, the bulk of which is centered in many countries that happen to not be Australia. These are some of the biggest shows the Smith Streeters have played to date. They’re worth checking out- chances are, the hike over to the Electric Factory won’t be as hemisphere spanning.