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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.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Ganou

Ganou | Photo by Ian Lewis

Late last year, Morgane Fouse released a mixtape under her stage name, Ganou. It was called Catharsis, and it was quite literally an act of catharsis for the Paris-born, Philadelphia-based electronic composer and vocalist. Fouse tells me that making music is, for her, a means of coping with depression; you easily notice it in her song titles (“This Is Why I Make Music”; “Can’t Sleep? Make Music”) as well as the emotional release you hear in her performances. Take a listen to her Key Studio Session take on “Detainment;” after a heartfelt bridge where Ganou raps about trying to confront pain but being dismissed and discouraged by those around her, her vocals soar into a tremendous coda – “How do I move on, how do I move on, from the monsters in my soul?” It’s powerful, exhilarating stuff.

But it’s also very beautiful, serene and tender. There’s an element of playfulness to her sound, most evident in “Hey Ya (Cover of a Cover).” And there’s a contemplative side. Ganou studied music at West Chester University, but has been practicing all her life, taking piano and voice lessons since she was in elementary school and taking part in choirs in high school. When she warmed up for our session, she did it in the proper vocal student way: by singing her way through an octave of scales.

Feeling creatively restricted, Ganou dropped out of school, moved to Philly and developed the sound she has today – an eclectic fusion of genres. You can hear the haunting minimalism of James Blake in the evocative “Waves,” which she performed for us, but she also finds inspiration in deadmau5 and Animal Collective. Two of the songs played – the yearning opening of “Set Yourself Free,” the reflective conclusion of “Fell In Love With A Boy” – are brand new, seeing their first release here. But where and when they will come out in finished form is still uncertain. We caught Ganou just before she went into a creative hibernation of sorts; she tells us its not permanent, but rather a means of calming some of the hurt she sings about while seeing how music and art can fit in her life.  Doing this “is shedding a lot of light on my future,” Ganou says, “and I can’t wait to see my creative end results.” Neither can we.

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The Key Studio Sessions: The Interest Group

Philly psych-pop outfit The Interest Group made a splash before they were even really a band. On the heels of his involvement with local projects Blackhawks and Bananas Symphony, Yohsuke Araki teamed up with fellow singer-guitarist Marissa Lesnick to record a cover of the late 60s nugget “The Boys and The Girls” by The Network. The song was so infectious that, before The Interest Group had a full lineup or had even played its first show, it got a Pitchfork writeup. This set the bar relatively high for the fledgling band, and while it didn’t follow up immediately, it followed up admirably – with last summer’s Passenger 7″, a winning set at Little Berlin’s Fairgrounds Block Party, with another new EP in February, and even more new songs recorded this week for The Key Studio Sessions. The band is fleshed out with bassist Kyle Garvey and drummer Steven Urgo, and the songs they recorded are pure modern pop gold. Rooted in snapy sounds and jangling melodies reminiscent of The Left Banke, 13th Floor Elevators and The Zombies, the band adds nice contemporary experimental florishes – backwards loops, white noise, dissonant breakdowns – making the saccharine more gritty. Listen to their set and grab free downloads below; “Locked On” can be found on EP1, released in February, and the rest of the tracks are brand new. To hear more, mark your calendar for May 14th, when The Interest Group plays the Underground Arts black box with King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Elegant Animals

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Elegant Animals | Photo by John Vettese

Philly’s Elegant Animals are five musicians with an adventurous spirit that transcends genres. You could call them an electronic band, an R&B band, or a rock band. And even though their music borrows from all these styles – soaring guitar solos to soulful vocals and evocative beats – none of those descriptions on their own feels accurate. In that sense, Frank Ocean may be their closest parallel – both artists have a style that’s eclectic and elusive but utterly captivating. In 2012, Elegant Animals released its debut EP, Spectrum Nocturnal, and this month they’re following it up with the excellent debut full-length Carnivora. For their Key Studio Session, the band played two songs from each release live in our studio. Listen and download their performance below, and get tickets and information on their album release show – Saturday, April 19th at MilkBoy with Kate Faust and Minks – the XPN Concert Calendar.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Modern Baseball

To say that Modern Baseball has transcended the punk scene would be an understatement. The band had already been solidly successful, touring tirelessly, amassing an impressive discography, cultivating a rabid fan base even before they released one of the best records of the year.

You’re Gonna Miss It All is a rare album that spans musical worlds. On the one hand, it stays absolutely true to MoBo’s trademark self-effacing, brutally honest songwriting self-portraiture of life as an awkward and uncertain twentysomething. It’s funny and its sad, it’s silly but lyrically sophisticated, and the hooks are in no shortage. On the other hand, or perhaps because songwriters Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens come from such a sharp and smart perspective, the record is one that will appeal to listeners outside the pop-punk world. There’s a Weakerthens-ish sense of melody and wit for the bookish indie rock types, there is an unbelievable pop-rock production for people who just like good music, every single song is one you’ll sing along to. With righteous jams like “Charlie Black, “here is no reason for MoBo not to be burning up the radio waves. (In my own small way on the XPN Philly Local show, I’m doing my part.)

The record impressed the tastemaking blog world, notably Vice and Pitchfork; the band landed a massive tour with punk scene stars The Wonder Years, who headline a sold out show this Saturday night at The Electric Factory. if you have tickets, get there early – Modern Baseball is not a band whose set you want to miss. Get a taste with the six-song Key Studio Session they recorded below, and check out a video of the band playing “Your Graduation” care of photo-video crew Allison Newbold, Megan Kelly and Rachel Del Sordo.

“Your Graduation” by Modern Baseball: The Key Studio Sessions from WXPN FM on Vimeo.