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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 →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Interminable

A fanfare greets you in the opening seconds of Interminable‘s Key Studio Sessions performance this week, and it has a very intentional effect. The sounds of two trumpets and a trombone immediately grabs any listener’s attention, and as the beat kicks in on “El Camino,” the band immediately comes together into a cool groove as frontperson and songwriter Ximena Viiolante sings about, well, coming together. Unity and forward-motion.

On the chorus, Violante’s voice soars with the line “Este camino es largo / Y lo llevaré en mi voz / Caminemos juntxs / pa’ que avancemos mejor,” which means “This journey is long, and I’ll carry that in my voice / let’s all walk together / so that we can move forward stronger.”

As a band, Interminable is a model of the sort of unity its lyrics aspire to. Violante has a background in son jarocho, a style of folk music from the Veracruz region of Mexico, and is also an educator who gives community workshops on the history and versatility of her chosen instrument, the jarana. Trumpet players Becca Graham and Marty Gottlieb-Hollis both play in the hip-hop ensemble Hardwork Movement, though Graham comes at it from a classical background, while Gottlieb-Hollis leans more jazz and experimental. Trombone player St. Clair Simmons III plays in jazz bands, salsa bands, cover bands — he’s a versatile musician as well, as is the rhythm section of Yeho Bostick (who also plays in the psychedelic ensemble Circadian Rhythms) and drummer Joe Perullo (who ranges from chamber rock with The Up and Ups to Latin jazz with Viva and the Reinforcements). Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Found Wild

For singer-songwriter Tim Arnold, the band Found Wild began as a journey of self-discovery.

Best known in the XPN universe as the energetic percussionist at the backbone of local indie folk-pop faves Good Old War, Arnold took a hiatus from his main band a few years back to step back from the brink that the hard-touring, regularly-partying lifestyle had brought him to. He sobered up, he and his partner had a child, and he began writing songs that, for the first time, were wholly his own. Songs were he was the focal point, not the backing vocalist singing harmonies over the drumbeat; songs about his life and experiences.

As he described it when I interviewed the band this summer, this newfound clarity opened the floodgates. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Gladie

Augusta Koch loves a poignant turn of phrase, no matter what the music backing her sounds like. You might know her best from her power trio Cayetana, and its jagged, guitar-bass-drums driven punk rock; her new project Gladie is built around softer, more serene synthpop and atmospheric electronic soundscapes; in both cases, the words are a crucial component to the music’s connectivity.

“I am angry, I am lonely, but I’m optimistic too,” she sings on “20/20,” a downbeat anthem about embracing the maddening uncertainty of life. On “The Problem Is Us,” she sums up the breakdown of interpersonal relationships so succinctly: “When it’s bad, it’s bad / when it’s good, it’s good / when you’re out, you’re out / just like I knew you would.” Koch doesn’t favor overly busy lyrics; she prefers an economy of words that get straight to the crux of whatever topic or emotion she’s seeking to illuminate, and she makes them an endlessly repeatable refrain. You hear it, you remember it, you feel it, you get it.  Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Joey Sweeney and the Neon Grease

Joey Sweeney has been a fixture on the Philadelphia scene for as long as I can remember. Back in my college days, he was a witty, sassy, no-bullshit columnist for the Philadelphia Weekly who also fronted the Wilco-tinged indie rock band The Trouble With Sweeney. He went on to found the revered cityblog Philebrity (which, sadly, seems to be on something of an extended hiatus), then returned to music in the 2010s: first with the wacky denimcore rock outfit Arctic Splash, then with the elegant Long Hair Arkestra. That’s to say nothing of the early ramshackle rock acts of his formative years, which I wasn’t around for, but I’m told The Barnabys were quite good, and their brief reunion at his 40th b-day gig Your Life is Calling, and tracks on its companion compilation, seem solid.

Point being: Sweeney has been ingrained in the city’s music and culture for so long that he probably needs no introduction. And now that I’ve gone and spent all this time introducing him, we arrive at the question: why? What keeps us returning to Mr. Joey Sweeney two decades into his career? Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Wallace

Lancaster’s Wallace Gerdy first showed up on the Philadelphia scene as the lead shredder in basement show regulars Mattress Food. Then, back in January of this year, she ventured out on her own with a short set of demos that were heavily informed by her love of classic rock. The instantly likeable “Sunny Monday” (with its undeniable debt to “Sweet Jane” by The Velvet Underground) caught my ear during the December edition of Items Tagged Philadelphia, I checked out the project’s full band debut at Ortlieb’s, and Wallace — as it’s eponymously called — was officially on The Key’s radar. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Thin Lips

“I was going to tell you what this song is about,” Chrissy Tashjian told a sold out crowd at PhilaMOCA last month, “but you’re smart. You’ll figure it out.”

The jam in question, a two-and-a-half minute rager called “South America” from the latest Thin Lips record Chosen Family, doesn’t require a ton of decoding. It wears its message very much on its sleeve — or rather, in its hook: “And now you’ll go to South A-MER-I-CA / with a woman that you only met last month.” So it’s a very literal breakup story, yes, but the telling of it is much more complex than such a label would imply, exploring themes of incompatibility, impatience, rejection, and unappreciated emotional labor: “let’s hear the line / the one that goes ‘Chris, I’ve never seen you try.’ / The line, the one that goes / ‘All I do is try.'”

I mentioned that its a rager, yeah? In the hands of Tashjian and her Thin Lips bandmates, the story behind “South America” becomes a soaring emo anthem, a song with interlocked instrumental complexity that’s incredibly fun, even as it unpacks personal lows. But that’s what this band has been all about since emerging on the Philly scene back in 2013 with the Gemini Moon EP — Tashjian took the name Thin Lips for her band because she is terrible at keeping secrets, and in their telling, she transforms them into something uplifting and pure.

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