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The Key Studio Sessions: Marah

Photo by Adam Staniszewski | stanzstudios.com
Photo by Adam Staniszewski | stanzstudios.com

“It was hard to believe that some of these songs had faded so far so fast,” Dave Bielanko says. “We felt like if someone of our generation didn’t have a go at them they’d perhaps vanish completely.”

He’s talking about his latest project under the Marah monicker – Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, a vibrant recording of songs collected by folklorist Henry Shoemaker in his 1931 book of the same name. Bielanko says the undertaking was the kind of idea musicians get all the time over beers: you think about how you’re going to record, you think about the types of rooms you’re going to play, you plan exciting and ambitious things – but don’t always follow through.

“Usually these big ideas fade away the next day,” he says . “But this time we didn’t let go, we kept pushing.”

When Marah caught the ear of the Philly music scene in the late 90s, it was revered locally and internationally as an outstanding live band. As we hear in this week’s Key Session – graciously guest engineered by Adam Staniszewski of StanzStudios – it still is an outstanding live band, though of a completely different sort. The instrumentation is acoustic and organic, not electric and rock club-ready; the beats come from snappy bootstomps more than hammering drums. The bass is upright and banjo is prominent. Christine Smith’s warm vocals match the old-timey arrangements, while Bielanko’s counterpoint singing has the same husky swagger as always, keeping a healthy mix of old and new Marah.

Probably the biggest surprise in the Mountain Minstrelsy ensemble is the 10 year old bandmate Gus Tritsch. He’s an ace fiddle player, and totally shreds (if “shred” can be used in a folk sense) on his lead parts, but also steps to the vocal mic for a roaring delivery on the lively, raucous parable called “Rattlesnake.”

Bielanko says that Tritsch “lives in the shadow of that church we recorded in” near the band’s new home base of Millheim in Central Pa. His proximity led to him becoming part of the project.

“At this point in my life I don’t believe I could possibly learn too much about music from anyone except a kid like Gus,” Bielanko says. “His fearlessness, his instincts. Watching him playing punk rock without really knowing what ‘punk rock’ is…performing this stuff live with him is an honor, he is a badass. We swap records now, for Christmas I gave him Every Picture Tells a Story.”

Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania came out last week; Marah plays Pittsburgh this weekend, Washington D.C. next weekend, and is shaping up plans for the summer. But, Bielanko says, “like a lot of cool things, we are not forever, we are not a ‘catch em next time’ kinda band. I love that aspect too.”

Listen and download Marah’s Key Studio Session below, and order Mountain Minstrelsy here.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Bleeding Rainbow

Photo by Dominique Montgomery
Photo by Dominique Montgomery

Philly’s Bleeding Rainbow make the music of survival. I mean that in a few ways, the first being a sheer reflection of their sound. The torrent of interlocking guitars – founding member Rob Garcia chugging away in your one speaker alongside feedback-wrangler Al Creedon in your other – driven forth by the propulsive drums of Ashley Arnwine and the aggressive bass of Sarah Everton. The music is a shield, a defensive noise-punk barrier build to guard not only the vocal ruminations of Everton and Garcia, but to protect the hard-working hard-touring Philly four-piece in general.

It’s also about survival from the perspective of struggling artists, frustrated wage-earners, deeply thoughtful creatives who are endlessly pigeonholed – as fellow Philly writer Elliott Sharp observed, it must be frustrating to have Pitchfork determine your band’s narrative. It’s the survival of the women in the band who face marginalization and sexist dismissiveness in day-to-day life, and unfortunately in their music lives as well – people, Arnwine is simply an asskicking drummer, and to qualify it any other way (“actually” “surprisingly”) is the most heinous of backhanded compliments.

This is a band that gets buzzed up and knocked down by the music intelligentsia and perseveres; it’s a band which, when I saw it perform at Golden Tea House in January, flipped a hellish series of technical / PA / microphone mishaps into a transcendent and cathartic set of meditative, Glenn Branca-ish drone. It’s taken the band years of growth to get to this point, pushing through roadblocks that may have derailed others. You hear it in its ever-expanding sound – compare the raging and powerful “White Nose” as they play it below for this week’s Key Studio Session to the first time they played it for us in 2010, when they were a two-piece and still called Reading Rainbow.

Bleeding Rainbow plays Golden Tea again this Saturday to celebrate the release of the new Interrupt, its new album out this week on Kanine Records. It’s not their easiest to listen to – at turns it can be raw, biting, forlorn, enraged and rarely poppy – but it’s undoubtedly the truest to where the band is at artistically, what they’ve experienced as musicians and as people, and what it’s taken for them to get through the time, noise to combat the noise, a catharsis for emotions and situations that are at once deeply personal and specific and yet oddly universal. Stream and download the Key Studio Session the band recorded for us below, and get more information on the album release show here.

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The Key Studio Sessions: The Hundred Acre Woods

Philly five-piece The Hundred Acre Woods doesn’t fall neatly into a single category. It’s bred in punk scene basements, but the music it writes is rustic and Americana-inspired. You’ll notice nods to folk tradition in its arrangements and multi-part harmonies, but it’s done in a pop-rock context – something that gets further amplified when the band plays live care of Brandon Harrison’s aggressive drumming and Pat Loundas’ rumbling bass.

While they’re not the easiest to pin down – Will Davis plays banjo, Zack Reinhardt plays electric guitar – at the root The Hundred Acre Woods are an undeniably sensitive and thoughtful bunch. In the past they’ve sung about Henry David Thoreau and westward expansion, and in this week’s Key Session singer and songwriter Winthrop Stevens gets self-effacing in the aching “Base of My Heart” and waxes philosophical on family matters in the vibrant “All I Love” (which we have a video for below).

This winter The Hundred Acre Woods released a delightful 7″ called Cold In The Morning on local upstart label Lame-O Records. Word is they are prepping even more new music for release later on this year; they joked recently that a working title is Sunglasses Emoji,”so you know it’s going to be terminally chill.” Dig in to the session below, and keep tabs on the band at its Facebook page.

“All I Love” by The Hundred Acre Woods: The Key Studio Sessions from WXPN FM on Vimeo.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Trophy Wife

Philly’s Trophy Wife is many things: expressive, aggressive, impressionistic, sensitive, empathetic,  empowering and any number of attributes that adjectives just don’t do justice to. The power duo of Diane Foglizzo (guitar and vocals) and Katy Otto (drums and vocals) has roots in punk rock and hardcore – check their shared time in the D.C. scene before moving to Philly and founding the band in 2009 – but the music they create now spans so many styles. There are hints of metal, prog, noise and experimental music in their blend, and the dynamic sounds they create is perfect for underscoring thought-provoking lyrical topics.

(Read More – Get to know Trophy Wife)

In the past, Trophy Wife has sung about intolerance and self-reliance (“Boundaries,” performed in this week’s Key Studio Session, hits on some of these themes) while its newest work takes imaginative departures. “Transition” is a metaphysical pondering of our roles in the universe inspired by science fiction and Afrofuturism, while the raga-esque guitar tones of “Neil Young” – my favorite of the four new songs they debuted for us – set a haunting mood to minimal lyrics that seem to meditate on strength versus powerlessness. These are raw live performance of music that will be available in more fleshed-out versions later this year when Trophy Wife releases its third album. To experience it further in the meantime, though, catch the duo opening for Pissed Jeans and Purling Hiss this Saturday at Union Transfer; tickets and more information can be found here.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Commonwealth Choir

Simply put, Commonwealth Choir is one of the most fun rock bands you can see in Philadelphia right now. They’ve got charisma: dueling frontmen Davis Jameson Howley and Nick Cislak leap around behind their mics, while multi-instrumentalist William Christopher Chamuris is the liveliest hype man we’ve seen in a rock band in recent memory (it’s the beard that does the trick). Drummer Jim “Hong Kong” Keifer kicks out propulsive rhythms and Maurizio Mazza holds it down on bass. Building on that, the Choir also has hooky, power pop-tastic songs – think The Replacements, Pavement, Weezer, The Strokes  – and when you get a room of people together who want to dance, and they’re the band on stage, it’s like the freaking perfect storm. The Doylestown-bred crew introduced itself to the Philly scene last year with the Shirtless EP; this year it has plans for a followup, and gave us a taste of two new songs in this weeks’ Key Studio Session. “Palace” is an opening track that will get stuck in your head in the best possible way, while “Pacers” is (as Howley describes it) “a real rattlesnake” of a song – check out a great video for it below via videographers James Powers and Bob Sweeney. (Additional shoutouts to photographer Ryan Boswell for the brillian mix of film and digital in the above gallery, and Tom Volpicelli at Mastering House for making the session sound like a knockout.)  Commonwealth Choir brings its party to the stage of Underground Arts on February 6th for the Communion Club night, and further on down the road, will headline MilkBoy on March 15th along with Pine Barons and Big Tusk. You can get all the info on those shows at the XPN Concert Calendar. But wait a little bit. Right now, stream, download, watch and rock out.

Pacers by Commonwealth Choir from James Powers on Vimeo.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Ginger Coyle

Ginger1Ginger Coyle is an artist with a tremendous range. The South Jersey singer-songwriter-pianist-guitarist first caught XPN’s attention with the bluesy “Silver Lining” from her 2012 EP Homeward Bound. In her Key Studio Session, though, we get a taste of all the other styles she has going on – spacey improv into raging rock and roll on “Let It Burn,” swinging pop in the vein of Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man on “Homeward Bound,” delicate jazz vocal stylings on “Moon and Back” and “Comfortable,” breathtaking introspection on the unreleased new number “The Big Picture.” Coyle is not a straight-ahead anything, and her powerhouse voice does wonders with whatever style she’s tackling at the moment. She’s spending early 2014 recording a followup to her debut, and will perform on the regular in the meantime – including an appearance on the 2014 Winter Doldrums Festival and Benefit at World Cafe Live on February 15th. Tickets and more information on that show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar. Download this week’s Key Studio Session below, and watch a video of “Let It Burn” shot by Ryan Chowansky.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Cruiser

Philly four-piece Cruiser gets pegged as summer-pop quite often, possibly because its music is indeed poppy and its debut EP was released in the summer. But that’s selling it way short – this is catchy music for the year ’round. We can hear it in this week’s Key Studio Session, and we’ll see it tonight when they headline Kung Fu Necktie (info at the XPN concert calendar here).

The project of songwriter-guitarist Andy States, Cruiser has been tinkering around the scene since about 2011. It expanded into a four-piece with the addition of guitarist Josa Lazas, bassist Kyle Cook and drummer Jonathan van Dine, and the band really kicked things into overdrive last year with the release of an infectious single called “Kidnap Me.” The song quickly clocked up over 100,000 plays on Soundcloud; when we did their Key Session (recorded and mixed on location by Mattias Nilsson at Studio A in South Philly) this October, the guys were baffled at the response, jokingly wondering what a band known for summertime jams is supposed to do in the winter.

The answer: gettin’ stuff done. Cruiser recently announced it’s signing to The Windish Agency, a booking agent – which sounds like such a boring industry insider news item, but it’s actually a big deal. In an time where record deals are harder and harder to come by, having a booking agent to land an artist good touring slots and a way to make a living off music is just as important (if not more so) than having a label – and Windish is one of the heaviest hitters out there. It’s already paid off for the Cruiser dudes, since they are on the Firefly Music Festival that was announced yesterday, and hopefully we’ll see bigger things from them as the year unfolds – the summer and beyond.

Below, check out four performances recorded live at Studio A, and watch a video of Cruiser performing “The Fritz” for us, produced by Bands In the Backyard.

CRUISER from BITBY on Vimeo.