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The Key Studio Sessions: The Vernes

One of the best moments in The Vernes‘ Key Studio Session this week — one that encapsulates them as a band, I think — happens at about a minute and 54 seconds into their performance of “H. Roark.”

It’s a midtempo, sorta breezy jangle-pop number, the kind The Vernes have done so well since moving to Philly from the Bay Area (following a NYC pitstop). After a buildup from gentle arpeggios to buoyant lead licks from guitarist Fabian Mera — who sways back and forth when he plays in a way that reminds me of Dr. Dog in the early days — we see singer-guitarist Matthew Gragg taking a solo when, while hitting a chord fervently, he gets the his guitar tangled in his headphone cord.

He keeps playing, the headphones get more tangled, and ultimately they topple forward, hanging off his neck until the end of the verse. We’re back in breezy midtempo territory at that point, but not really, since this sort of immersive playing from The Vernes can make even the quietest song electrifying.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Japanese Breakfast

Japanese Breakfast | photo by Galea McGregor for WXPN

A lot’s been said already this year about Japanese Breakfast — not to mention its driving force: singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Michelle Zauner.

Candid and vulnerable lyricist. Charismatic and inspiring frontperson. Tight and transcendant live band. Sonic visionaries. Near-universal acclaim for JBrekkie’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet has come in from all corners — The Guardian to The New York Times and NPR — and it is, quite frankly, incredible to see, as we’ve been fans of Zauner and her bandmates in their various forms over the years. She and bassist Deven Patrick Craige go back to beloved punk four-piece Little Big League, she goes further back to Post Post and her production partner (and drummer) Craig Hendrix has worked with anyone from Birdie Busch to Jesse Hale Moore, The Dove and the Wolf and his solo project Auctioneer.

The band is rounded out by guitarist and keyboardist Peter Bradley, and it’s safe to say that Japanese Breakfast has become the highest profile pursuit that any of these Philly-rooted musicians has taken on…and rightfully so. Beyond the emotional hook of Zauner’s songs — which, on Soft Sounds, dissect human connection and communication, positing that our only barriers to intimacy and trust are one another — the band has a tremendous ability to translate that emotion sonically, to make listeners at home and folks in the crowd feel what they are feeling.
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The Key Studio Sessions: Alright Junior

A case study in less-is-more, Philly rockers Alright Junior keep things contained to the time-honored rock and roll elements — guitar, bass, drums, voice — and in the process, they sound massive.

Maybe it’s the way the stringed instruments interact, with ample space carved out in arrangement and tone for each to howl. Maybe it’s the way drums are methodically paced, coming in at just the right moment with just the right amount of force to elevate the fray. The band’s emotive, heavy rock hits any number of touchstones, from Queens of the Stone Age and Soundgarden, to less-remembered artists of the modern rock era like Our Lady Peace and Remy Zero. Performed live in WXPN studios recently, it sounds particularly badass.
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The Key Studio Sessions: Worriers

As far as album titles to encapsulate the state of the world in the year 2017, Survival Pop is about as on the nose as you can get.

The sophomore outing from punk rock four-piece Worriers — the project of singer / guitarist Lauren Denitzio, who relocated to Philadelphia from Brooklyn last year — boils over with rage and frustration in an era where the rights of marginalized members of American society are under attack.
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The Key Studio Sessions: Katie Ellen

Anika Pyle first came to prominence fronting the acclaimed Brooklyn punk band Chumped, which riffed and raged for a few exciting years and then, following the album cycle for 2014’s Teenage Retirement, decided to retire.

In its wake, Pyle refocused to explore the more sensitive side of her songwriting in the project Katie Ellen, which debuted with a Bandcamp demo called wild <3 in early 2016. The indie rock riffs were ever present, as was Pyle’s powerful vocal delivery, but the range was notably more dynamic. Songs could be a midtempo stroll (the title track) as easily as they charged (“Lucy Stone”); clean guitar tones mixed in with fuzzed-out overdrive; the arrangements and melodies were as east coast rock as they were Nashville roots.

A move to Philly later, and Katie Ellen released Cowgirl Blues this July on Lauren Records. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Telepathic

Philly punk trio Telepathic is lean and mean, direct and driven. Its performance for The Key Studio Sessions this week rocks out six jams econo in a little over eleven minutes — and here I thought last week’s session with Radiator Hospital was efficient! — and its forthcoming LP, Self Check Out, packs in a walloping 19 ragers with little in the way of excess. Basically, these are three humans who know exactly what they want to say, know how they want it to sound, and they waste no time getting to the point.

The band is comprised of three players — Rob Garcia on guitar and vocals, Sarah Everton on bass and vocals, Mark Rice on drums — who have moved in indie circles for a while now. Garcia and Everton co-fronted the asskicking Bleeding Rainbow, while Rice played in Jason Molina’s Magnolia Electric Co. But unlike other bands of scene vets that, oftentimes, can come across as cynically calculated in attempting to optimize industry forces in their favor moreso than making art, Telepathic is the opposite. They are art first, all the way, and to this observer, their EPs and the forthcoming LP seem to say “we’ve been down that road already. We hated it. This time, our music is for us.”

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The Key Studio Sessions: Radiator Hospital

Five years ago, Sam Cook-Parrot moved from Grand Rapids, Michigan to West Philadelphia with some guitars, some songs and a healthy Bandcamp back-catalog. His project, Radiator Hospital, pretty much became an instant hit around the scene, whether he was performing solo in the basement of Nacho House (where I first encountered him, opening for Ted Leo) or turning it up full-band style at Golden Tea.

Having trusted friends for collaborators helped. Sam knew drummer Jeff Bolt from back home, and the two relocated to Philly around the same time. They joke that they picked up Cleveland bassist Jon Rybicki along the way, while New Yorker Cynthia Schemmer joined on lead guitar after meeting Sam amid her own move to Philly. The chemistry was undeniable, the enthusiasm was contagious and the appeal was clear: this band had rip-roaring punk rock energy, classic pop songwriting motifs and themes — their honest, vulnerable songs tend to dissect love and yearning over hooky melodies — and a totally earnest, engaging delivery. Or, as their very on-point Facebook bio distills it: “We are a rock band of rockers who love to rock. We also can be just one person who is much quieter but still loves to rock.” Right on.
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The Key Studio Sessions: Zeek Burse

We first met charismatic Philly crooner Zeek Burse a couple years back when he lent his vocal talents to a Key Studio Session by transglobal house music outfit Worldtown Soundsystem. That crew, as we observed at the time, very much operates like a family, and Burse carries the same spirit over to his own ensemble — a seven-piece rock band that brings a bounty of energy to its monthly engagements at South Philly rhythm and blues institution Warmdaddy’s, as well as to Zeek’s 2017 record XXII…and this week’s Key Studio Session.

Burse is a engaging performer, a dynamic singer and a gifted interpreter of songs; a recent gig saw him tackling songs by Prince (his self-professed number-one influence), Gnarls Barley and Imagine Dragons. Those Warmdaddy’s shows mix in a fair amount of covers, but his own material is impeccably strong. XXII is funky and fun, filled with hooks, grooves, and unexpected sonic turns — there’s room to dance and room to meditate.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Bahamadia

You can’t talk about Philly hip-hop in the 90s without talking about the queen: the most awesome Bahamadia, who first stepped to the mic in ’93 and has been active at it in some form ever since.
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The Key Studio Sessions: Joshua Chase Miller

“What do you think of that vocal harmonizer?” asked Joshua Chase Miller during his Key Studio Session. “I turned it down, was it too much?”

I responded that I actually liked hearing it in the mix. It took his songs, which were solid piano-driven pop songs to begin with, and added an otherworldly Bon Iver flare to them.

Miller laughed at this observation. “It’s not like I don’t have three Bon Iver tattoos or anything,” he slyly responded. “My inner fanboy comes out no matter what.”
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