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The Key Studio Sessions: The Wonder Years

photos by Ashley Gellman for WXPN | agellmanphotos.com

It should be no surprise that the word “connection” comes up a lot when talking about The Wonder Years‘ sixth album, Sister Cities.

For one thing, it’s the primary theme that singer and lyricist Dan Campbell wanted to explore this time around — the idea of coming together, while also being further apart than ever before, both geographically and philosophically. The idea of finding common ground between humans divided by cities and continents, by the distance between Kyoto, Japan and Santiago, Chile and Cheyenne, Wyoming and their hometown of Philadelphia. There are Wonder Years fans in all of those places, and by superficial traits, they could not be any more different, but get them in front of a stage and they’ll be equally passionate about screaming along to “Dismantling Summer” or “Coffee Eyes” or “Came Out Swinging” or “Logan Circle.”

That’s the other reason why connection is an enduring theme of The Wonder Years. There’s a distinct feeling, being in the crowd at one of their gigs, an electricity in the air as the lights dim low and the bandmates step to the stage — Mike Kennedy on drums, Josh Martin on bass, Casey Cavaliere on lead guitar, multi-instrumentalist Nick Steinborn, rhythm guitarist Matt Brasch, and Campbell taking the lead vocal mic. The endorphin rush is palpable, the physical rush is sometimes treacherous as the audience surges forward to create as little distance as possible between them and the band. They want to lock eyes and grip hands, they want to share the moment with one another and with the band. To say The Wonder Years have a connection with their fans is an understatement.

And there’s also their connection with one another. Of the band’s six members, five have been in the lineup since first getting together in 2005 in the suburbs of Lansdale; Steinborn is the closest thing to a “new kid,” and he’s been on board since 2009. The band toured its last record, 2015’s No Closer to Heaven, for a solid two years of international dates. Those travels inspired much of the music on the new record, but when they concluded, the band fanned out to their separate lives. These fixtures of the punk community are no longer banging on in a South Philly basement every night; they’ve moved to different places in the greater Philadelphia orbit, many have wives or long-term partners, and the time they get together as a band is increasingly rare and precious. But when it happens, that connection is such a strong one that there’s no warm-up period — they go all in from the start.

That’s exactly what we saw this March when The Wonder Years set up shop in WXPN studios to record a live set for The Key Studio Sessions. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Agent Zero

A lot can change in seven years, and for Noah Selwyn, it’s been quite the journey from his earliest incarnation of Agent Zero to the collective of musicians joining him in WXPN studios this week.

In preparing this session, I found myself doing a deep dive on the Philly electronic dance musician’s Facebook archive of live photos and gig flyers, and discovered an early 2011 shot of him and three peers in We Are Psy-Fi productions on a rooftop near the Kimmel Center. Selwyn’s hair is short and spiky, he was mostly clean-shaven, and wore a button-down shirt and tie. It appears this was his standard stage attire at the time, and it seems like he often took the stage solo as well. Today, he’s got long, flowing and vaguely hippie-ish hair, rocks a beard, and dresses more casually to perform, including a stylish bead necklace worn during his Key Studio Sessions performance. And he has a band that takes the stage with him.

Beyond appearances, the more significant change is Selwyn’s music. It was always bright and upbeat, a bubbling concoction of trance, house and dubstep that he honed studying under Slit Jockey Records founder Starkey. Though his skill as a producer has certainly advanced over the past five years, you can still hear the Agent Zero of today in the Agent Zero of 2013’s EP Sound Sorcery Volume 1 — body-moving BPMs, ecstatic synthesizer tones, progressive rhythms that follow a dramatic ebb and flow. Selwyn always had the chops to make Agent Zero work in the DJ realm — potentially a new generation’s Pretty Lights or Quantic — but the big change that between then and now is his pop sensibilities developed and his ambition grew. Continue reading →

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Folkadelphia Session: Roger Harvey

For someone coming from the world of amped-up punk rock,  Roger Harvey‘s music is decidedly low-key and reflective.

The singer-songwriter relocated to Philly from Pittsburgh about three years ago, following stints touring with Against Me!, Dads and The Menzingers. His debut LP, Twelve Houses, was released that October, and it set introspective lyrics to lush acoustic arrangements in the vein of Neutral Milk Hotel and Death Cab for Cutie, with his haunting and tremulous vocal taking center stage.

Almost two years later, Harvey returned with a more outer-directed perspective on the Two Coyotes LP. This time, rather than personal ruminations, he tackles bigger-picture issues; immigration is unpacked in the title track, which tells a story of love across borders, while superconnected isolation is the focus of “Love In The Digital Age.” You can hear anger and frustration, albeit in a subdued manner, on “Gold,” which opens his studio session this week — when he sings “fuck the foundation, we’re in control,” it’s one of the prettiest punk rock moments we’ve captured in the studio. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Deb Callahan Band

Philly vocalist Deb Callahan has been singing the blues for 20 years, and plans to do a lot of celebrating to mark the milestone. The festivities kicked off back in March with a headlining anniversary showcase back in March; from there, Callahan and her three bandmates — bassist Garry Lee, guitarist Allen James and drummer Tom Walling — have a calendar of shows plotted out through June, showcasing their recent fifth album Sweet Soul and digging back through their back catalog.

We got to see some of what they can do in this week’s Key Studio Session, and for a four-piece without much in the way of fanfare or instrumental excess, their sound is remarkably full. James’ guitar emulates a Rhodes keyboard tone on the swinging “Seven States Away,” a Florida-to-Pennsylvania travelogue Callahan wrote about wanting to return home and see her son; on “Carry Me,” his playing resonates its way down a dusky delta swamp, while the set-closing “I Keep Things Running” has a jagged rock edge. Lee’s bass is warm and enveloping, filling in sonic nooks and crannies in subtle but important ways, and Walling’s drums are precision-tight, with loud accents aplenty but just as much studious simplicity.

The glue holding it all together, the reason we’re here in the first place, is Callahan’s voice, an instrument in itself that is dynamic in range and full of emotion, from determination to frustration to humor and more. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Queen of Jeans

In a phrase possibly borrowed from Bob Dylan, Philadelphia indie pop four-piece Queen of Jeans has both an album title and a mission statement: Dig Yourself.

It’s a poignant statement of self-love in a time where we’re socially scrutinized more than ever, where constant connection leaves us feeling forever inadequate, where anxiety is a reigning force in our daily lives and the friendships we keep and the music we consume. Some day, decades off in the distance, a cultural historian is going to look at the landscape of the 20-teens, cluttered with dismissive gifs and judge-y Slate headlines, and they’ll put our era of world-weary sad pop into a retrospective sociological context. Or maybe not; they’ll no doubt have their own shit to deal with in the 2080s.

But in the fray of it all, Queen of Jeans’ message is simple: do what you love, love who you are. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Palmlines

About this time last year, my digging through Bandcamp’s Philadelphia tag on a regular basis led me to a captivating dream-pop outfit from State College called Sea Offs — and that opened up an even bigger rabbit hole of sorts.

Of the two singer-guitarists in that band, Olivia J. Price was the first to show up elsewhere on our radar in the band Queue and their Spotify hit “Frontier.” But her songwriting partner Rashmit Arora is equally versatile — these are folks rooted in Penn State’s music school we’re talking about here, it makes sense — and his other band Palmlines made the trip down to Philly to record a set of songs for this week’s Key Studio Session. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Greg Sover

Things started heating up for local singer-songwriter Greg Sover somewhere around 2015. The nimble guitarist had begun work on his debut LP, Songs of a Renegade, and connected with a group of musicians that not only helped the recording project, they leveled up his gigs in the regional live scene as well. Bassist Garry Lee, guitarist Allen James and drummer Tom Walling are the trio at the core of coffee house scene favorites Deb Callahan Blues Band, and paired up with Sover’s husky vocal delivery and howling licks, the energy is explosive.

This year, Sover followed his debut up with the Jubilee EP, a short and sweet set that sees him breaking beyond the blues rock pigeonhole he’s often placed in and dabbling in expansive reggae, anthemic pop, and string orchestrations.

That’s not to say, however, that blues aren’t at the core of what Sover does. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: I Think Like Midnight

This week’s Key Studio Session is for those who love to hear artists venture outside their comfort zone.

West Philly guitarist Andrew Chalfen spent the late 80s and early 90s playing raucous power pop in The Wishniaks, around the same time that keyboardist Joe Genaro and drummer Dean Sabatino made weird and wonderful rock music in the Dead Milkmen. As the years passed, Chalfen shifted his focus to the soaring indie tones of The Trolleyvox and connected with folk-leaning bassist Josh Newman, who played with Philly scene staples American Altitude and Heyward Howkins.

The collective project of those four musicians, I Think Like Midnight, doesn’t sound like any of those bands, and is all the more special for it.

Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Matt Cappy

Local trumpeter Matt Cappy is full of loving references to his native New Jersey. Just look at the song titles that he and his band played for their Key Studio Session: “856,” for the area code. “Rose Lane,” for a street he grew up on in Berlin, NJ. “East Philly,” regional slang for Camden County.

But as much as Cappy makes it clear where his roots run, he’s Philly through and through. The University of the Arts-schooled jazz player gigged at the now-defunt Wilamena’s back in the day, blew horns in late 90s ska staples The Freakin’ Cads and has played on and off with Jill Scott since her band went by the name Fatback Taffy.

Last year, Cappy released his long-in-the-works debut solo album, Church and State, and it sees him flexing his sound and style both inside and outside the jazz spectrum. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Aleana

When we first encountered Philly’s Aleana, it was her voice that grabbed our attention.

Teamed with Philly rapper / crooner Mars Parker as a backing vocalist on his Key Studio Session, she gave the performance what I described at the time as “a stunning, introspective counterpoint.” Now I’m not saying she straight up stole the show, but she definitely stood out with that performance, and we put Aleana on our radar here at The Key to see what came next. Continue reading →