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The Key Studio Sessions: Taylor Dunn

Philly-bred MC Taylor Dunn got his start in music while playing basketball at LaSalle University, and his rap style has a coolness and focus that probably came in just as handy on the court as it does behind the mic. He debuted in 2011 with the Daydreamin’ mixtape (the one with the catchy Where the Wild Things Are cover art) and followed it up the following year with On the Contrary. Skillful with wit, wordplay and pop culture references – listen to his Key Studio Sessions set for references to Sister ActCarissa Explains it All, the Branch Dividians, old school Nintendo games and more – Dunn’s rhymes are free-associative and fun, and he has impeccable taste in music to mine for beats (with all due credit to his producer and creative partner Philth Spector).

Samples of Erykah Badu, The Roots and old soul records pepper his songs, giving him the vibe of a classic rapper who might have come up at the same time as A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets; “Orange Juice and NowAndLaters,” on the other hand, is positively crunk, and his overall sound and style recalls a young Jay Z…seriously. See below for a video of Dunn performing that last one in our studio, download the entire set and hear more on the new Collective Theory mixtape, available for download now at Soundcloud.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Milton

Though he’s not from here originally, Milton McCauley has a voice, sound and charisma that fits right into the heritage of Philadelphia soul. But even saying “Philly soul” is selling this very talented musician short. Originally from Maryland and currently based in Reading, Milton – an artist who prefers to go just by his first name – draws from an expanse of genres. Produced by Rob Devious (who also plays keyboards in his live band), the album pulls from jazz, pop, hiphop and electronic groove music. The live band that joined us in the WXPN studios this week for a Key Session adds an undeniable rock undercurrent to the mix as well. “Desire” is a pretty solid sonic mission statement, but the progressive swell of “Slippin Dippin” is also captivating, as is the guitar-vocal simplicity of “Emotion Picture.” Listen and download the set below, and see Milton take on the new Dockside Bar at Dave and Buster’s this Saturday the 12th of July; tickets and information on the show can be found here.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Maitland

Central PA’s Maitland is a band, but it is also Josh Hines – a cheerful guy with long blond hair, an outgoing demeanor, an acoustic guitar and a knockout voice. Since debuting in 2012, Hines has fluctuated between being a solo performer and working with a band. When he’s in the group setting, they do the dramatic atmospheric slow burn thing; alone, Hines pares it back to Elliot Smith style simplicity and intimacy. That’s the version of Maitland we got when the barefooted troubadour visited XPN studios this past weekend to roll out four songs that, as yet, are unreleased, but if you’ve seen the band live in the past year or so, chances are they’re familiar.

“Mothers Touch” undeniably recalls I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning-era Bright Eyes (and, of course, the older stuff that album referenced: the SoHo folk scene of the 1950s); “Luna” is dreamy, mysterious and Jeff Buckley-ish, “Glimpse” strikes a resonant Iron and Wine chord and “Cup of Love” is a fervent strummer. It’s music that, in this most minimal of arrangements, sounds complete, but at the same time you’ll hear how Maitland the band might build on this foundation – Hines’ percussive playing can hint at larger arrangements if you let it. When it stops by MilkBoy on July 11th, you’ll be able to see in person how the group of players might embellish these songs – though, given their potency, I’m hoping for a solo Hines moment or two.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Tiani Victoria

Photo via King Astro of Batcave Radio
Photo via King Astro of Batcave Radio

It was winter when we heard Philly’s Tiani Victoria, and our reaction was pretty amped: at the time, I called her an “emerging Philly rapper with a razor-sharp delivery and a fierce flow that would melt icy sidewalks as easily as melting faces.” Her video for “Million Dollar Flow” had just been released (watch it here) and I totally saw and heard big things:

It’s a quick clip, but sets an incredible tone – Victoria’s confidence is unwavering, her lyrics are clever and she handily establishes herself as a powerful new voice on the Philly hip-hop scene.

Tiani has done pretty well for herself since then, continuing to release singles on the regular via her Soundcloud page. The lovelorn “Is It A Crime” samples a song of the same name from Sade’s 1985 record Promise, while “Blow My High” is a dancefloor tour de force produced by the Digital Crates crew and featuring a verse from Spade-O. One of her best is the collaborative “Set It Off (The Symphony),” where Tiani is one of four Philly women rapping over a fierce beat – it’s all about empowerment and solidarity in a scene that, all too often, can feel like a boys’ club. Download the original here, or check out Tiani performing her verse solo in this week’s Key Studio Session. The performance also features those other tracks I talked about, as well as the more recent “Marinate” (watch a video for that one below, care of Bob Sweeney) and a boss freestyle.

All of this is leading up to two things: Tiani’s performance this Friday June 27th at the TLA on South Street for Urban Celebrity Mag’s Philly Summer Fest (tickets and info at the XPN Concert Calendar), and the release of Hard Candy, her debut full-length, out this summer.

The Key Studio Session: Tiani Victoria “Marinate” from Bob Sweeney on Vimeo.

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The Key Studio Sessions: PhillyBloco

When we were going over the setlist for their Key Studio Session, PhillyBloco leader Michael Stevens pointed out that none of the songs from the set were their own; “We’re strictly a cover band,” he told me, but just looking around the room, I knew that this was a dramatic understatement.

For the past six years, the 20-piece ensemble modeled after the bloco Brazilian-dance tradition has been rallying audiences at venues from the TLA to World Cafe Live, getting a tremendous rep particularly for their annual New Year’s Eve throwdown at the latter venue. The band takes songs originally performed by some familiar names (Galactic, James Brown) along with lesser known artists from around the world (Jorge Ben Jor, Clara Nunes) and spins them in their own arrangements that blend samba, funk and rock sounds. When I say “lesser known,” though, I (unfortunately) mean lesser known to North American ears. But that’s part of the band’s mission, as our Sameer Rao pointed out in his New Year’s profile interview with Stevens and the band:

For the probable majority of their audiences, PhillyBloco might be their first exposure to this rich musical tradition. They needn’t be concerned, since samba’s percussive base sits comfortably alongside the reggae, New Orleans second line, and funk that PhillyBloco also incorporates into their music. They’ll recognize songs from folks like James Brown, and hopefully this unique spin will get them interested in digging further into something unfamiliar.

Call them musical ambassadors. Or just call them an incredibly tight band. As you can see from the photos in the gallery above, their numbers are huge, but they were remarkably efficient. Along with their regular sound engineer Craig Kaufmann, who did a remarkable job mixing this session, the band settled in our studio and plowed through a feisty set with ease and energy. The songs you hear below, in their original format, were done by (in order) Daniela Mercury, Galactic, Nunes, Jor and Skank, and PhillyBloco has more jams just like them in their repertoire. Listen to the set. Turn up your headphones. Dance around your desk if it suits ya. And consider taking in the full-on PhillyBloco experience at one of their upcoming gigs: Ardmore Music Hall this Friday the 13th of June, or over at World Cafe Live on the 9th of August.

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The Key Studio Sessions: The Weaks

When they were both players in the dearly departed Philly indie pop collective Dangerous Ponies, singer-guitarists Evan Bernard and Chris Baglivo cooked up The Weaks as as writing exercise of sorts. The goal was a song a week, and though the schedule didn’t totally shake out that way, the first of their two Bandcamp pages quickly filled up with a huge variety of super-catchy singles – some were raw and lo-fi, others were polished and poppy; some were gruff 70s-style rockers, other were hard hitting jams reminiscent of the alt-rock 90s. Over time the project became a real-world band, and earlier this year its debut EP The World Is A Terrible Place and I Hate Myself and Want to Die was released on local label Lame-O Records. The record is a total stew of everything that’s loud and fun and thrilling about rock and roll – guitar harmonies and wild solos, counterpoint vocals and searing screams, slamming drumbeats and total infectiousness.

For their Key Studio Session, The Weaks played two songs from the forthcoming full-length they’re releasing on Lame-O, and you’ll hear undeniable hints of Weezer, Cheap Trick, Smashing Pumpkins and any variety of other popular faves. Bernard tells me that writing for for albums or EPs isn’t tremendously different from writing for the ongoing project. Basically, he and Baglivo just crank out songs at different paces – him more spontaneous and explosive, Baglivo more meticulous and crafted. When it’s time for a release, they pick the best of what’s ready to go. Of the 30-plus unreleased songs they’ve got in their repertoire right now, 11 will be on the LP, and the rest will be parsed out in the ongoing semi-weekly releases – which, when you think in terms of numbers, that’s a pretty impressive output. Stream and download this week’s Key Studio Session with the band below, and to take in The Weaks live – the lineup is nicely rounded out by bassist Corey Bernard, guitarist Austin Jefferson and drummer Mike Tashjian (another former Dangerous Pony) – set your sights on new NoLibs venue Bourbon and Branch on Friday night, where they’ll appear on the Sounds for Sustainability showcase.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Chelsea Reed and the Fairweather Five

If it wasn’t for encouragement from Carsie Blanton – an XPN local fave who relocated to New Orleans a few years back – the breezy jazz of Chelsea Reed and the Fairweather Five might have never seen the light of day. Blanton heard Reed singing and, struck by her smooth and classic style, told her she needed to start performing for swing dancers. Flash forward two years and The Fairweather Five has become one of the more recognizable young players in Philly’s ever-evolving jazz scene. The combo digs into standards and classics from the early 20th century (“Basin Street Blues” dates to 1917) and recasts this century-old music for today’s ears. That doesn’t mean they put some sort of “modern twist” on the music, though. Listening to the band perform, they play it like a jazz band of old would – a vocal theme at the beginning, a string of impressive solos swapped between all the players, and a return to the theme at the end. Reed and her bandmates – trumpet player Noah Hocker, saxophoneist Chris Oatts, guitarist Jake Kelberman on guitar, bassist Joe Plowman and drummer Austin Wagner – are not a pop singer-songwriter outfit with jazz leanings; rather, they’re jazz musicians with a great singer in the mix. Half of the band are full time musicians, or musician-teachers; the rest are finishing up studies at Temple’s Esther Boyer College of Music – though Reed cringes a little at the notion that people will see them, primarily, as “a college band.” But they won’t; you can hear the dedication to their craft and to their band as a unit in the songs performed live for us in this week’s Key Studio Session. Stream and download the set below, and catch the band at any of their numerous local performances in Philly this summer – they play late sets at Chris’ Jazz Cafe on June 14th and July 5th, and will open for Blanton at Ardmore Music Hall on July 19th.

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The Key Studio Sessions: The GTVs

As legend has it – or week-old legend at any rate – when Sam Steinig of The GTVs was struggling to load his vintage, 210-pound Hammond organ and corresponding Leslie amplifier into the WXPN studio, he passed by World Cafe host David Dye in the hallway. As Steinig tells it, Dye “took one look at the beast, shook his head and said ‘That’s what you get for being authentic.’” The band’s sound is as retro as their gear and their sartorial choices (which you can see on display in the photos above and video below) – a GTVs song will begin with punchy garage rock instrumental base and mix in delightful mod hooks with nods to surf and soul. Their album Sh’Bang was released today on Teen Sound Records, and two of the songs in this week’s session come from it – “Sleeper Agent” and “Cry If You Want To” – while the others are brand new and getting their first release here. Look for “Organ Donor” to become their next anthem, and make your plans to catch The GTVs live at their album release party July 12th at Ardmore Music Hall with St. James and the Apostles and Weird Hot. Tickets and information at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Heat Thunder

They’re based in Doylestown, and considering the nuanced nature and pure potency of their music, you have to wonder how often Heat Thunder actually leaves Doylestown. Their music is thoughtfully arranged and intensely affecting – rhythmic acoustic guitars jangle alongside evocative ambient electrics, and the use of generous minimal space is mesmerizing. My go-to comparison is a middle ground between the songwriting clarity of John Ritter with the hazy soundscaping of Radiohead, and it’s clear that a lot of care and thought went into crafting this music by primary songwriter Joe Montone (along with more recent additions of bassist Matt Phillips, Luming Hao on guitar and William Chamuris on drums). Not to mention a lot of time – since first emerging with a film / EP combination Melody, Love and Soul in 2012 (which got the attention of tastemaking Tumblr Yvynyl the following year), the band has only released a handful of tracks, although its process is gradually beginning to accellerate. Last night, it headlined World Cafe Live upstairs, and on May 24th Heat Thunder plays Random Tea Room in Northern Liberties with Upperfields. They’ll be at Bourbon and Branch in June, and a 7″ is in the cards for this year. You can hear three new songs in the mix in this week’s Key Studio Session; in addition to back-catalog cuts “Solo World” and “Love,” there’s the ultra-catchy “Wearin’ Black,” the contemplative “Song of Deception” and the rousing anthem “River Song,” which you can see them perform in the below video by Elijah Lee Reeder. Check it out below, and get information on the band’s upcoming shows on the XPN Concert Calendar.

“River Song” – Heat Thunder // WXPN Key Studio Session from Elijah Lee Reeder on Vimeo.

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The Key Studio Sessions: TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb

A few things we’ve learned about TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb since first recording the Philly band for this series three and a half years ago: there are no periods in their name. Frontman Dan Bruskewicz is a stickler for punctuation, and if you will mess it up, his Twitter shall make it known. It’s also kind of shortselling Kong to describe them, as we did at the time, as “punkabilly.” Certainly there are elements of rowdy Americana in their sound, delivered with punk rock gusto and attitude. And sure, Joshua Machiz rocks an upright bass. But the tapestry this band pieces together – both on 2012′s remarkable Manufaturing Joy and this year’s Kong EP – is eclectic and evocative, stirring together dusty cinematic arrangements with lyrical tales of depravity and hard-luck humanity that sound like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. The band seems to currently be going through a Tom Waits fixation: Bruskewicz has always had that gravely voice, they’re throwing a Waits tribute night at Jose Pistola’s on May 14th and, heck, I mean just listen to “Snakeskin” in the session below and tell me it doesn’t sound all Rain Dogs. Also, they’re the only band (that we know of) that’s performed an exorcism in our studio. The bulk of Kong’s Key set was recorded the same day the band played on the Folk Show with Gene Shay, a preview of its EP release show at Johnny Brenda’s, and that set was such a knockout that we’ve included a track from it – the feverish suicide fantasy “Blood in the Bathtub,” enineered by Adam Staniszewski of StanzStudios and featuring a bit of interview with Shay at the end. Listen and download to the entire thing below; if you want more (and can’t catch Kong at the Waits tribute night), Bruskewicz plays a Kong solo set May 30th at Boot and Saddle.