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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

ElegantAnimals
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.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Tutlie

Local six-piece Tutlie might just be one of Philly’s most imaginative bands. There’s their excellent debut full length Young Cries, two years in the making and released digitally a few weeks back (premiered right here on The Key), ripe with dream-like synthesizer tones, arty structures and hooks galore. There’s the sound, which takes a cue from the studious musicality of Dirty Projectors while also echoing the charismatic harmony-driven vibe of Lucius and the whimsical arrangements of Buried Beds. There’s the subject matter: during their Key Session, the band played “Kaito,” a song newer than the new album, and lead singer and songwriter Jessie Radlow tells us it’s from the band’s next planned album: Gashadokuro, a concept record based on Japanese folklore. The band – which also features co-singer and multi-insturmentalist Rebecca Way, bassist Greg Diehl, guitarist Greg O’neill, drummer Mark Cruttenden and multi-instrumentalist Asher Brooks – gave us a tight performance, and if you dig the tracks you hear below, check them out in a month’s time when they open the show at City Rain’s album release party, May 1st at Underground Arts.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Up The Chain

Reed Kendall is one of those songwriters who can do just about anything. It’s easy to latch on to the breezy Americana vibes and DMB-ness of his Up the Chain – originally a solo recording project, now a full fledged band – and he does that style remarkably well. But looking at Kendall’s music through just that lens would miss the whole picture. Last year’s Seeds and Thorns had a standout late-night soul cut called “For to Give Away” that blew my mind; Up the Chain’s Key Studio session hits on raucous rockabilly ( the new “Sidecar”) as readily as sharp Randy Newman-esque pop (“Seasick Sailors”) and slinky vaudevillian jazz (“Here I Haven Meet”). The current crop of players are a knockout – recording with us in this session was Anam Owili-Eger on keys and vocals, Kevin Killen on drums, Matt Wong on bass, and Avery Coffey on guitar. They performed a total of three new songs – the others being “Hand & Gasoline” and “The Hardest Stone,” both drawing a very promising picture of the next UTC release. Listen and download below, and check out a video of “The Horse’s Course” by Bob Sweeney. Want more? You can catch Up The Chain live at Ardmore Music Hall on Saturday, April 26th, when they open for the similarly eclectic-minded David Wax Museum. Tickets and info on the show can be found here.

Up The Chain “The Horse’s Course” from Bob Sweeney on Vimeo.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Marian Hill

One of our favorite new artists to emerge from the Philly scene in the past year, Marian Hill is a groove-based electronic group that spans the worlds of jazz, pop and downtempo dance. You’ll hear mellow beats, smoky vocals and alluring arrangements in their Key Session, alongside undeniable hints of similar artists from the late 90s / early 00s – Portishead, Sneaker Pimps and maybe a touch of Kylie Minogue on “Play” – though the core duo of Samantha Gongol (vocals) and Jeremy Lloyd (production) are probably more inspired by London Grammar and Baths than they are by Everything But the Girl. Their debut EP, Play, came out earlier this month, and they performed it live for us, but the best thing about the session: their live sound is hardly a note-for-note copy of their studio recordings. Check out the dramatic lead-ins that take us to “Breathe Into Me” and “Whiskey,” or the clever cut-up intro on “One Time.” Check out also the bouncing saxophone by live member Steve Davit on “Lovit.” Since Marian Hill does make electronic music, they could simply start the tracks rolling and leave the performance at that, but their live energy is infectious – they dance, they move, they bop around and get into their music even when their only audience is those of us in the control room. Download their Key Session below and keep your eyes peeled for more on the band’s Facebook page.

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The Key Studio Sessions: W.C. Lindsay

1901884_713561992007539_1808382692_nWhen we brought you his song “Little Ghost” as a My Morning Download last week, we talked about W.C. Lindsay‘s knack for bridging scenes and worlds. You can hear that in action in his appearance on the Key Studio Sessions this week. The delicate and introspective “Tree” begins like an emotional ballad, but kicks into a thundering rock jam thanks to Richie Straub’s propulsive percussion. “Kids these Days” is a straight-up pop earworm (try getting it unstuck from your head after listening to this rollicking performance) and the aforementioned “Little Ghost” blends stylish rap and new wave sheen. These songs are but a taste of the eclectic array frontman Will Lindsay doubtless has in store when his album Easy Victim, Charitable Deceptions comes out on Big Footprints records in April. Listen to and download the session below,

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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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