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The High Key Portrait Series: Birdie Busch

Birdie Busch | Photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN | hellerhound.com
Birdie Busch | Photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN | hellerhound.com

High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in biweekly installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.

Birdie Busch’s new record Thunder Bridge is beautiful, meditative, with an attention to production details and sonic textures that would make Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Jeff Tweedy envious. Recorded in Germantown, Busch’s sixth LP sees the introduction of longtime friend Jaron Olevsky as keyboardist, as well as co-producer along with her partner, bassist Todd Erk. It’s a pensive, reflective collection of eight tracks that might remind you of Lucinda, Feist, or the moods of Beth Orton, and you’ll be comforted to know that Busch is a local Philly girl too.

What’s more, on June 18th, the Philly songstress will host a record release party at Boot & Saddle in celebration of the new work (get tickets and more info here). She’ll also be around town with a handful of show dates this summer, and come Fall, Johnny Brenda’s will host her seventh annual Philly Opry, a night of music cultivated by Busch, and conceived to mix-and-match local and traveling acts.

In her interview with us, Busch related her eclectic influences, her love for the city and its arts community. She speaks thoughtfully, poised with deliberation and without calculation, and throughout shares her contagious outlook of renewal and rejuvenation, whether it’s with reference to her relationship with live performance or just walking or biking the city’s streets and neighborhoods. Continue reading →

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UNLOCKED: The inner workings of Thin Lips, or how its better not to keep secrets

Thin Lips practice at Big Mama's | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Thin Lips practice at Big Mama’s | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

It’s a soggy Monday night in Philadelphia and we’re crammed into small room in Fishtown’s Big Mama’s House arts space. The room, which maybe measures 15-by-15 feet, is the practice space of Philly punk four piece Thin Lips, but it also doubles as drummer Mikey Tashjian’s living quarters. He moved in not long ago, and started lightly decorating the room with random artifacts – record sleeves, iridescent fabric, a blue-ish abstract print made by his aunt.

The band is workshopping many things at once on this particular evening – it’s about to head out on tour in support of Riff Hard,  their debut LP out today on Lame-O Records (that we’ve been featuring all week long on Unlocked), and it’s been a while since they played these songs together live. Kinks are worked out, particularly on raging album opener “DEB.”

“It’s about how being a girl is hard,” says singer-guitarist Chrissy Tashjian, Mikey’s sister. “And how being a girl who dates girls is hard.”

After a few passes through the two-minutes-and-change blast of energy, the band stops for a breather and we casually chat about the items Mikey has scattered the room. Above his bed, a polo work shirt on a hanger dangles from a hook on the wall. It belongs to the Tashjian’s late brother Billy, who passed away at 22 in January of 2014, right before what was supposed to be Thin Lips’ live debut opening for Radiator Hospital and Potty Mouth at Boot and Saddle.

Mikey says the shirt is a reminder. “You can work hard,” he says. “You can be a good person. And you’re still going to die.” Continue reading →

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Rhys Chatham traces influences and epiphanies at FringeArts with his new Pythagorean Dream

rhys chatham
Rhys Chatham | photo by Roland Owsnitzki | courtesy of the artist

In the timeline of rock history, the Ramones are typically hailed for their stripped-down, back to basics sound, a necessarily primal scaling back from the excesses of prog and fusion. But when an unsuspecting Rhys Chatham walked into CBGB for the first time in May 1976, he was coming to the nascent punk scene from the opposite direction – the even more extreme austerity of minimalism – so he had a very different reaction to the Queens foursome.

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Don’t You Forget About Me: The Snow Fairies

The Snow Fairies
The Snow Fairies’ first show, 2001-ish in West Philly | photo by John Vettese

Bands come and bands go, and in a decade and a half of covering the Philadelphia music community, I’ve seen innumerable bands come and go. Many of whom were quite incredible. Many of whom should be heard by new generations of local artists and local listeners. And fans of good music in general. Our new feature, Don’t You Forget About Me, dives into the smoky venues and dusty record stores of Philadelphia past to unearth the music and memories of artists you need to rediscover.

Our story opens on a tiny stage maybe six inches off the ground, wedged in between a street-facing window and a deep red wall decked out with kinky artwork. Lagers are swigged, empties are discarded on the floor, pirogies are fried up in the back. And amid that musty conglomeration of stale cigarette smoke and dried-up beer and onions and whiskey – old timers, by now, probably know I’m talking about Tritone at 15th and South, not a faux-dive but a Dive in the truest punk rock sense – we see five polite twentysomethings with colorful instruments standing onstage.

Or seemingly polite, anyway. “We’re the goddamn motherfucking Snow Fairies,” barks bassist / songwriter Neal Ramirez before the band kicks into “Water and Beer,” a song from their 2005 sophomore LP Get Married, of which they’re onstage celebrating the release. It’s his first song for the SFs singing lead – a duty handled with class by Rose Bochansky up to this point…and for that matter, after this point too – and it’s a minute-and-a-half blast of amplified rockandfreakingroll.

Ramirez’ voice takes a stratospheric leap in pitch and fervency; he chucks his instrument against the wall and grips the mic in his hand. He screams about junk food and drinking Coca Cola till his nose bleeds. He steps off the stage and buts heads with the people in the front row. He knocks over a chair drops the mic on the floor and falls into the drums. Or maybe not. I was there but, you know, beer. Whiskey. Cigarettes.

This was just one moment in a catalog of understatedly memorable performances by The Snow Fairies, one of the funnest Philadelphia bands of the early aughts – and one that thankfully returns, albeit briefly, for a Space 1026 show this Friday, ahead of a NYC Popfest gig on Saturday. Continue reading →

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Worldtown Soundsystem on its first five years of bringing international music to the Philly party scene

Worldtown Soundsystem | Photo by Charles Shan Cerrone | courtesy of the artist
Worldtown Soundsystem | Photo by Charles Shan Cerrone | courtesy of the artist
Over a dozen people comprise Philly party collective Worldtown Soundsystem, and the crew has made a huge noise bringing sounds and rhythms from around the globe to the Philly party scene. With the band celebrating its fifth anniversary this Saturday night at The Fillmore, we sat down with founding members Ben Arsenal, Gary Dann, Jonifin Marvin, Femi Oluwafemi, Jules Starr to talk about how Worldtown got here and where it’s going.  Continue reading →

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Unwrapping the post-punk complexity of West Philly’s Pinkwash

Pinkwash |photo by AmyJuneBreesman | courtesy of the artist
Pinkwash |photo by Amy June Breesman | courtesy of the artist

West Philly drum and guitar duo Pinkwash have spent the past three years crafting hypnotic punk ragers with muscular guitar parts wrapped in oddly-timed rhythms. Their first release, the magnificently tense yet explosive Your Cure Your Soil EP (Sister Polygon) was a brutal, outraged set of songs dealing with the death of singer / guitarist Joey Doubek’s mother from breast cancer.

After releasing the Cancer Money 7” and going on tour, the band returned to Philly to work on their first full length, Collective Sigh out this month on Don Giovanni Records.

We sat down with Joey and drummer Ashley Arwine to talk about touring, their new album and West Philly’s emerging post-punk scene. Continue reading →

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How Philly psych band Grubby Little Hands found destiny in the wake of tragedy

Grubby Little Hands (photo by Claire Abribat)
Grubby Little Hands | photo by Claire Abribat | courtesy of the artist

There’s a striking image present on “Dial Tone,” the first track off Grubby Little Hands’ forthcoming record Garden Party. Amidst lush swirls of psychedelics, songwriters Donnie Felton and Brian Hall paint a picture of the perfect garden party—at a pristine spot with “elegant shadows.” There’s only one thing missing:  the people. Instead, the party is seemingly automated: “The garden party starts right after we’re gone,” goes the chorus. “The automatic lights will turn themselves on.”

Read one way, it’s a metaphor for things not always being as they seem—a theme that recurs throughout Garden Party, which is built on the marriage of pop euphoria with dark subject matter. Read another way, it’s about the interplay between apathy and unease—about feeling disconnected, and going through the motions (another theme). But when you actually talk to the band—which I did, for this story—you start to realize there’s a third meaning too. It’s about time, and growth, and learning to take charge of your destiny. Garden Party is not only Grubby Little Hands’ best record yet—it’s them controlling their destiny. Continue reading →

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Sound and Place: Free Cake For Every Creature

free cake for every creature
Free Cake for Every Creature | photo by Hope Helmuth for WXPN

Sound and Place is a recurring series where we take Philly musicians to their favorite places in town. For this installment, we visit Katie Bennett of Free Cake for Every Creature at Satellite Cafe in West Philadelphia.

It’s a Sunday afternoon and Katie Bennett is reading a book. There’s a chill outside on Baltimore Avenue, but she’s cradled by the intersection of two red walls in a seating area just off of the register at Satellite Cafe in West Philadelphia. Bennett does this a lot–to clear her head, get a rush of caffeine, eat some of the coffee shop’s vegan treats and to write.

Her band, Free Cake For Every Creature is about to release their first full length, Talking Quietly Of Anything With You on April 15 on Double Double Whammy. Meanwhile, she recalls the first get together she hosted at her home nearby, the first place she’s lived since moving from Saratoga Springs in 2015, where she’d spent five years.

“We were having some friends over for a little barbecue that evening and I was sitting and thinking about how excited I was and how cool and how good I felt being here,” Bennett says. There’s a sheepish enthusiasm in her voice, much like the vocal style in which she sings–hushed and patient.

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Vocals Only: Andy Hull on scoring a film using only his voice

Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra
Andy Hull | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Fans of Manchester Orchestra know that Andy Hull’s voice is sometimes at its most powerful when it’s quiet. Sure, he can push his volume and power over the sailing, distorted guitars, but it’s when he’s at his quietest where he lets much of his emotion come out through trembling melodies and rich harmonies. You can also hear it in his solo project—Right Away, Great Captain. Now, along with Manchester Orchestra bandmate Robert McDowell, Hull used the power of the voice, and the voice alone, to score the film Swiss Army Man, which stars Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano. And it was not easy. Continue reading →

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Wither Not: A conversation with Andrew Bird ahead of his Electric Factory gig

Andrew Bird
Andrew Bird | Photo by Reuben Cox | courtesy of the artist

“Get out your dictionaries,” Andrew Bird instructs us on the title track of Are You Serious, the debonair multi-instrumentalist’s thirteenth-or-so album (it’s difficult to know what counts). It arrives tomorrow, on April Fools Day – yes, seriously – in advance of his appearance at the Electric Factory on Monday.  Perhaps a sly callback to a similar line on “Measuring Cups” (from 2005’s landmark The Mysterious Production of Eggs), it’s also just sound advice when dealing this guy, as avid Bird-ers know well; as he muses self-reflexively earlier in the song: “[I] used to be so willfully obtuse – or is the word abstruse?”  

On Serious, though, without fully laying off the brainy science references and polysyllabic repartee – check his discursive, meta-romantic exchange with Fiona Apple on the bluesy “Left-Handed Kisses” – Bird offers some of his most plainspoken, disarmingly personal lyrics to date. Significantly, the album comes in the wake of both marriage and the birth of his now four-year-old son.  It also features some of his most driving, immediate music in ages, encompassing tense, meaty funk (“Capsized”), Afrobeat inflections (“The New Saint Jude”) and bright, punchy power-pop (the atom-smashing “Puma”) alongside his more typical rustic fiddlings and gypsy-jazz balladry.

Even at its peppiest, Bird’s brand of thoughtful, folksy indie rock isn’t typically the sort of thing that packs venues like the Electric Factory.  Performing solo and (as he does on this tour) with a band, he’s made his name with dazzling violin-work, live looping and uncanny whistling; it’s a subtly spectacular performance style that, for better or worse, benefits greatly from an intimate setting. When Key editor John Vettese caught up with him on the phone from a Nashville tour stop this week, Bird discussed the contrast of performing in big rooms versus small spaces, feelings of being on display in performance and writing, and how a virtuosic output keeps his chops from withering. He also reflected on his beginnings with the Music of Hair LP, which turns 20 this year.

Read the interview below and listen to Are You Serious in full via NPR Music. -K. Ross Hoffman Continue reading →