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The Key Studio Sessions: Low Dose

Like a lot of Philadelphians who encountered them last summer, I was completely taken by surprise the first time I saw Low Dose. It was one of their first-ever shows, it took place at the Everybody Hits batting cages, was headlined by the always-galvanizing Soul Glo, and found the bandmates setting up gear in the wake of an instrument-slamming set by post-hardcore ragers Great Weights — in other words, they were bookended by two fellow Philadelphia punk scene players who don’t skimp on the captivating energy.

Not that it was an obstacle. Frontwoman Itarya Rosenberg stood quietly holding the mic, a brutal guitar riff began looping out of the speakers, and it was like a switch flipped on — bandmates Mike McGinnis on guitar, Jon DeHart on bass, and Dan Smith on drums launched into a crushing jam, Rosenberg crouched to the floor, and howled. I stood to the side, next to Great Weights’ Meri Haines, and we both watched drop-jawed and awestruck. Twenty minutes of poppy hooks, dissonant freakouts, and general punk catharsis later, we looked at one another all like “What the hell was that?”

Low Dose, to put it lightly, knows how to make a formidable first impression. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Sophie Coran

Making music is a process of constant re-invention. Meticulously crafted studio recordings are re-shaped onstage, the onstage energy influences the direction of the next studio recordings, and the cycle continues back and forth over an artist’s lifespan.

Sophie Coran has already experienced quite a bit of that in her four years as a singer and songwriter working around Philadelphia. Her earliest work, the Better EP from 2015, took on a piano-driven identity in the vein of Carly Simon and Paula Cole. Last year, her follow-up, All that Matters, folded in elements of jazz and soul. And as Coran began playing shows around town in support of that release, she connected with Logan Roth and Arjun Dube of the experimental instrumental band Trap Rabbit. They became her live band, and the chemistry she developed with them — as well as bassist Mike Morrongiello — pushed her music into new realms.

The recent “Duller Star” single is the first example we’re hearing of collaboration. It’s a song that breathes in a husky tenor, its melodic skeleton fusing with Roth’s layers of synthesizer soundbanks and melodic leads to create an arty pop air reminiscent of Fiona Apple. There’s also a rhythmic pulse, care of Dube, that isn’t too far off from the crowd-galvanizing concepts of EDM.

Watch the video below as the song opens on a solitary Coran, playing her Nord and singing about a cigarette abandoned on the nightstand. As the verse progress, Morrongiello’s bass enters along with Roth’s keys, gently at first, and then becoming more defined. They unite with Dube’s drum stand pings and light rhythms, until the cymbals emphatically swish, then breathlessly cut to silence at the end of the pre-chorus. The beat drops. The song is under way. And as I said in an NPR blurb about Coran earlier this week, it will “in its own, downtempo jazz-pop kind of way, get you moving.”

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The Key Studio Sessions: Kayleigh Goldsworthy

We were fortunate enough this week to catch Kayleigh Goldsworthy in a rare moment of respite.

Whether residing or just passing through, the singer-songwriter and guitarist has been all around these United States — many of the places that pop up in her songs, like Portland and Nashville and New York — and for the past year and change, she’s called Philadelphia home. The concept of “home” in some ways is a bit nebulous, though, since Goldsworthy is always on the go. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Grandchildren

“All right, are y’all ready to rock?” I asked the members of Grandchildren as we finished setup and soundcheck in WXPN studios last month…and drummer Roman Salcic had the perfect response: “We are ready to art-pop!”

Truly I love the idea of “art-pop” as a verb. It’s an active phrase, definitely more active than the word “rock” — which, if it wasn’t the name of a legacy music genre named after a colloquialism for sex, would be a simple and unimpressive noun, a word for a heavy and blunt geological material. By comparison, the activity implied by “art-pop” feels vivid and full of imagination. Which is a perfect description of the consistent trait that has defined this adventurous Philadelphia band for the past decade. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Masie Blu

Philly’s Masie Blu was vying for an unsigned artist spot at the 2017 Firefly Music Festival when she first grabbed The Key’s attention with the gauzey, cirrocumulus soundscape of “Kundalini.”

Masie wound up not winning that competition (called the “Big Break Contest” or something of a similar nature), and in a way, she’s probably all the better for it. For sure, she would have played a striking set at the Delaware megafestival, and while she isn’t averse to traditional venue gigs, her meditative style is much more at home in art spaces and open mics, in yoga studios and living rooms, in community centers with ital food simmering very nearby.

Masie Blu’s music circles around themes of love, creativity, and personal transcendence, and with the release of last year’s uplifting Transform EP, she brought her skills as a producer and songwriter to new heights, delivering soaring, Erykah Badu-esque melodies to imaginative tapestries of bright horns and buoyant beats. The set she played for The Key Studio Sessions touches on all of that, with the aid of two backing musicians: Antonio Robinson on electric upright bass, and Nathaniel Savoth on electric guitar.

The instrumental arrangements added light and texture to songs like the dancefloor groover “Mocha,” and the atmospheric zen koan “Warm Reflection of Cool Hues.” Their collective playing also transformed Masie’s music further, with the cosmic spoken word bounce of set closer “Balance,” where Masie folded up her laptop and riffed along to reflective instrumental licks as she accompanied her bandmates on kalimba.       Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Foxtrot and the Get Down

It’s hard to believe, but Philly rock faves Foxtrot and the Get Down are coming up on eight years in the scene. Like any good band active for that amount of time, they’ve grown — and I’m not just talking about going from the duo project of West Chester University friends Colin Budny (guitar and vocals) and Ken Bianco (bass) to the soaring six-piece band that filled WXPN studios this week. I’m also talking about growth sonically and stylistically.

In the beginning, and even a decent way into the mid-period, Foxtrot’s bag was bare-knuckled bluesy modern rock, amped up and aggressive. They’re still a loud band with a big sound, mind you, but today they boast an expanded scope and a dynamic range — something that came first with Erica Ruiz joining the band on keys and vocals in 2014, and then with the 2017 release of Roots Too Deep on Nashville’s American Echo Records, where the band began to incorporate country and folk melodies and arrangements into their poppy rock fold.

They’ve been releasing singles one-by-one in the couple years since then — and playing them for massively engaged crowds ready to dance, as we saw in a high-energy throwdown at Firefly last summer — and the latest batch of songs finds the band diving deep into the American soul stylings of Motown and Stax Records. All that is to say that the Foxtrot and the Get Down that joined us for The Key Studio Sessions is the expansive R&B-minded Foxtrot, fleshed out by saxophone leads from Will Schade and guitar licks from Collin O’Donnell, propelled by percussion from Jimmy Iovine, and not at all shy about flexing their prowess in a near-seven minute cover of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You,” which Ruiz totally slays on the vocal front before letting just about everybody in the room take a solo.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Reef the Lost Cauze

The first time I encountered legendary Philly MC Reef the Lost Cauze, it felt like a whirlwind. The year was 2010, the occasion was an album release party for producer Dumhi’s latest project The Jungle at the ultra-hip Slingluff Gallery in Fishtown. The celebration was in full swing when Reef arrived, right on cue, just in time to cup the microphone and spit fire on “Lions” and “Philly Cousins.” He paced the gallery with intensity, worked the crowd as they sipped their craft beer bottles, and then as quickly as he appeared, he was gone.

If that formidable first impression was not enough, the second time was even more intense. It was two years later, early on in my tenure at WXPN, and a group of us was set up in the studio filming a collaborative Key Studio Session with local hip-hop bog Philadelphia Music Magazine. A live band provided the backing for Reef and his friend and rap scene contemporary Ethel Cee; Reef had never played with a band before, was incredibly hype over their energy, and poured everything he had into a gutting performance of “This Is My Life” that left the entire room breathless.

Later on, in an interview with PMM’s DJ AfroDJiak, Reef gave some context for the gripping nature of his performances.    Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Ali Awan

“I kind of get stir crazy if I’m not out playing shows,” says Ali Awan. “I always have to be in a certain project, I love writing and working on stuff.”

In recent years, the Philadelphia psych rock singer-songwriter — WXPN’s Artist to Watch for the month of January — has played lead guitar in a handful of northeast bands, including Philly’s Needle Points and New York’s Jane Church. But his own solo material was always in back-of-mind, and the four songs populating his Bandcamp page, going back to his year-old debut solo release “Citadel Blues,” were all the result of downtime within other projects.

“I was pretty much writing a lot of this stuff as I was in those bands, but I never knew how I wanted to present it,” he says. “Should I get a band together? Is it just a recording project? Playing ‘Citadel’ live was the last thing on my mind, because as much as I love being a frontperson, I also love just playing guitar.”

It’s not a new obsession, either. Awan is 26 now, but he’s been playing music around Philly for more than a decade, going back to when he was a 14-year-old kid who would take the regional rail downtown from Abington to catch punk shows in basement venues with names like Disgraceland and Halfway House.
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Watch Speedy Ortiz play “I’m Blessed” for WXPN’s Indie Rock Hit Parade

Speedy Ortiz | photo by Taylor Johnson for WXPN

Don’t think for a second that music with pop leanings isn’t music for the mind. Take Philly indie four-piece Speedy Ortiz, which this week heads out on its last run of tour dates in support of this year’s awesome Twerp Verse LP. The band’s power chord riffs are ear pure candy, while frontperson Sadie Dupuis’ vocal melodies rise and fall in remarkably hooky arcs.

It’s fun to hear, but a closer listen reveals complexity, both structural — the odd angles and unexpected sharp turns each arrangement takes — and lyrical — Dupuis just published her first book of poetry, if that gives you any indication of the angle from which she approaches her songwriting.

One of the standouts when Speedy Ortiz recorded an Indie Rock Hit Parade session at WXPN last month was “I’m Blessed,” a song that burns and builds over about three different movements, and while the concluding melody seems in one sense uplifting, it’s also cathartic, as Dupuis spends the song unpacking repressed anger. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Kilamanzego

I’m a sucker for hyper-specific genre names when I’m searching the internet for new music, so seeing that Kilamanzego tagged several of their recent tracks as “kalimba core” warms my heart.

For sure, it’s a reference to a song: this spring, the experimental electronic musician from West Philadelphia released an enchanting piece of music called “Picking My Kalimba From A Distance.” But “kalimba core” also works as a summary of their mission statement. Kila’s music is rooted in house, trance, dubstep, and ambient electronic styles, but draws influence from a variety of African sounds as well. Listen and you’ll hear Congolese rhythmic intricacies, highlife vocal samples, and that titular kalimba and its melodic leads — also known as the mbira (or colloquially as the thumb piano), it is an instrument with origins in central African countries.

Primarily, Kilamanzego’s music is indented to rock parties with high-energy beats — they’re part of the smth savant collective with MadamData and others, which organizes the backyardbxss event series — but they also look to push the possibilities of what those beats can sound like, merging Kila’s Ghanaian’s heritage with their punk rock roots and experimental spirit. Continue reading →