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Unlocked: Watch City Rain go acoustic and outdoorsy in their Sequence session

Yesterday, in our review of City Rain‘s Songs From a High School Dance, we talked about how the album saw frontman Ben Runyan finding his voice as a songwriter. A classic way to test that claim out: take away all the bells and whistles and electronic layers of the music, listen to the songs in their most basic, stripped-down format, and consider the results. Do they hold up?

Filmmaker Matthew Albasi did just this over the winter months, bringing Runyan and his City Rain partner Scott Cumpstone into a wooded outdoor path (looks like the Wissahickon Valley Park, but I could be wrong) and had them play two songs with only an acoustic guitar and a boombox to add a bed of tones and beats. You might call the boombox cheating, but it’s only minimally audible, leaving these performances of “The Optimist” and “Mama, I Want To Go Home” to be carried by Cumpstone’s fervent strumming and Runyan’s singing.

A few takeaways – Runyan is a really good singer. Take away the studio reverb and vocal doubling and whatever the heck else makes his voice sound huge on the record, and guess what? It still sounds huge. Cumpstone should consider working an acoustic into City Rain live sets sometime – it adds a nice nuanced touch to the music. And the music and the melody absolutely hold up. Check it out and decide for yourself below. Who knows, maybe there’s still time for City Rain to work an acoustic micro-set into their Thursday album release show at Underground Arts.

Songs for a High School Dance is the featured album in this week’s edition of Unlocked. Download the single “Waiting on a Feeling” in Monday’s post, read yesterday’s album review, and check back tomorrow for an interview and Friday for a travelogue.

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Unlocked: The Key’s review of Songs for a High School Dance by City Rain

The most compelling thing about Philly electropop outfit City Rain used to be its sense of vibe.

Frontman / sonic architect Ben Runyan is a massively energetic and endlessly creative spirit. With former recording partner Jarrett Zerrer (who left the band in 2012 to pursue his solo project Dokument), Runyan crafted funky, beat-heavy and texturally alluring tracks on two LPs (2009′s Running Man, 2011′s self-titled follow-up) and three EPs (I’m Gone in 2010, Watch Out in 2011, Montage in 2010). Zerrer’s jamband-esque guitar riffing paired with Runyan’s clever layering of synthesizer tones, samples and knob-twisty effects. Enter emphatic baritone vocals, and result was pure ear candy for EDM heads – if perhaps a bit lacking in terms of pop structure and focus.

On the new Songs for a High School Dance, Runyan has found himself as a songwriter. It’s a collection of cuts that aim for arenas moreso than nightclubs. It sounds dramatic and dynamic and BIG. Most importantly, Runyan has a clear message he’s shooting to convey, a story he’s trying to tell; the experience of coping with troubling human emotional states – bipolar disorder, depression, love loss and friendship loss – and doing so as a young person in post-recession 21st century America, a time that’s particularly unkind to dreamers.

There’s a bit of self-help-ness and motivational-speakerdom about it all, and some moments of the album get a bit too heavy-handed in their heart-on-the-sleeve nature. The single “Join the Human Race,” for instance, sells the catharsis pretty hard. See also “Don’t Choke,” which is actually a particularly moving song about Runyan being uncertain about his creative future following Zerrer’s departure (a breakup that happened at the same time Runyan was ending a romantic relationship) – but the hammering kick drum bombast on the verse almost obliterates this emotional core, not to mention a great vocal contribution from Kate Faust.

That said, in considering songs that are memorable for the neato beeps and sounds they contain versus songs that are memorable for maybe overdoing the drama a bit, but also has passion and hooks and a message…I mean, the choice is obvious. Passion all the way. Continue reading →

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Unlocked: Download “Waiting on a Feeling” from City Rain’s Songs for a High School Dance

City Rain at SXSW | Photo by John Vettese

City Rain has always been a vehicle for catharsis, whether it was frontman Ben Runyan leaping around with frenetic energy to booming Fatboy Slim-esque beats in the duo’s early days, or the more sentimental electropop turn it took on the transitional EP, Montage.

When the band debuted its single “The Optimist” a year ago, it heralded an even bigger sound, heightened drama and a more impactful emotional release. It was heart-on-the-sleeve, and it totally worked. This feeling carries across Songs for a High School Dance, City Rain’s third LP, which we’re featuring all week long on Unlocked, the Key’s regular spotlight on new and significant releases from Philadelphia artists.

The album title is very telling – it speaks to both levels City Rain works at, crafting music that makes you want to feel like a teenager, until you remember the feelings of a real-live emotional teenager. (To paraphrase James Murphy.) Runyan has talked a lot already about depression, antidepressants and the various way they play into the songs on Songs. In a sense, it’s a collection of music about learning to feel again.

Tomorrow we’ll bring you an album review, with a music video spotlight on Wednesday, an interview on Thursday and a travelogue from Runyan, a personal journey of sorts, on Friday. Today, we spoptlight “Waiting on a Feeling,” the apex of the album’s second act, and one of the most ecstatic and affecting vocal performances Runyan has delivered. Check it out below – thanks to the band, we’re offering it as a free download all week.

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Unlocked: Ataloft’s definitive guide to the sights and sounds of Berks County

Ataloft at Main Street Music | Photo courtesy of the artist

Last Saturday, Ataloft played a short but inspired set at Main Street Music in Manayunk for Record Store Day. It was a fun day, a chance for us to play our new songs, promote our May 3 album release show at Ardmore Music Hall and maybe gain some new fans.

For this final installment of our Unlocked series, XPN gave me the go-ahead to talk about whatever I want. It got me to thinking about RSD and the T-shirt that our keyboard player Cory Heller was wearing that day. “Reading PA, no one likes us, and we don’t care”.

Reading fell on hard times, was kicked while it was down and was subsequently branded the poorest, most dangerous city in America. We got a bad rap. In reality, Reading/Berks may actually be on a cultural upswing—and the surrounding county is beautiful and diverse. There are plenty of reasons to like us, and secretly, we do care. Here’s my definitive guide.

Places of Interest

The Pagoda – We don’t know why it’s here or what it means, but it is uniquely ours and we love it. The Asian-inspired Pagoda offers spectacular views of Reading and the surrounding countryside. Conversely, from most points in the city or county, you’ll know exactly where you are by locating the Pagoda high atop Mt Penn.

The Sacred Oak Tree – a 500-year-old yellow oak tree with magical powers? It stands in a farmer’s field in the Oley Valley. (Ask around to find it.) According to Native-American legend, the wife of a powerful chief became very ill. Desperate for a cure, the young chief traveled to the Sacred Oak and there prayed to the Great Spirit for his wife to be saved. When he returned to camp, his wife was well again. Great spot for first dates and curiosity seekers. Continue reading →

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Unlocked: Darren Schlappich on the unexpected origins of Ataloft

Photo courtesy of the artist

“The last thing I was looking for was to start another band,” says Darren Schlappich. “It just kind of worked out that way.”

In fall of 2012, the singer and songwriter behind the new Reading-area six-piece Ataloft didn’t know Ataloft was going to exist a year and a half later. He didn’t know that it was going to release a fantastic pop-rock production of a debut LP, a far cry from his country-Americana roots. Schlappich was wrapping up a long stretch of activity with his other band, Frog Holler, in support of 2009′s Believe It or Not. He was pretty content that he’d kick back and take time to himself with no looming musical pressures, when his friend Bruce Siekmann gave him a call.

He had some free time in his Fleetwood, Pennsylvania studio, Amoeba Audio, and asked if Schlappich would like to record anything. Intrigued, Schlappich and his Frog Holler bandmate Michael Lavdanski showed up with an unrecorded tune called “Warning Signs.” It had a midtempo bounce and worked in a contemplative lower register; they recorded some guitar parts and vocal harmonies, then left for the day.

“A couple weeks later Bruce sent me a copy, and he’d added bass and keys, fleshed it out a lot,” says Schlappich. “And then it was another year before we talked about it again. He got in touch and said ‘Hey, did you want to revisit that song? It’s not really finished.’”

Schlappich, Lavdanski and Siekmann reconvened to put some finishing touches on “Warning Signs,” then moved on to another song – the plaintive “Heart Attack on the Holidays,” which kept things very tightly focused around acoustic strumming, an electric lead, and an understated bass part.

“I remember Bruce putting the first bass notes on it,” says Schlappich. “I was like ‘wow, we’ve gone outside of Frog Holler now.’” Continue reading →

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Unlocked: Take a look inside the studio where Ataloft came to life

Ataloft | Courtesy of the artist
Ataloft | Courtesy of the artist

If you had to boil it down to a place, Amoeba Audio in Reading is where Ataloft came to life. As we’ll hear in tomorrow’s interview, Frog Holler members Darren Schlappich and Mike Lavdanski went into the studio owned by their friend Bruce Siekmann to mess around with recording some unreleased songs. The initial meetups went well, and the group kept returning until there was a full album and a new band in tow.

Earlier this month, the Reading Eagle met up with Ataloft to profile them upon the release of the self-titled album, and brought a video crew inside Amoeba to watch the band – now a six-piece – play live in the room where the music was born. Check out a performance of their very summery song “Old Jones” below, and get psyched to see these gents perform at Ardmore Music Hall on the 3rd of May.

Ataloft is the featured album in this week’s installment of Unlocked. Download “The End is Nearer Than We Know” in Monday’s post, read yesterday’s album review and check back later this week for an interview and more

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Unlocked: The Key’s review of Ataloft’s self-titled debut

a3607964194_10Darren Schlappich might be known as the lead guy in one of the region’s  Americana staples, Frog Holler, but that doesn’t mean Americana is his whole world.

The singer-guitarist has an evident appreciation of expansive pop-rock productions stylists like Brian Wilson, Phil Spector and John Brion, and while those leanings might not always get a chance to shine in his main project, his new band does an admirable job of scratching that itch.

On the debut LP from Ataloft, released on ZoBird Records earlier this month, Schlappich explores tones and takes chances with his music that he might not have in Frog Holler. Banjo player and multi-instrumentalist Mike Lavdanski also made the jump from Holler to Ataloft for the project, and it’s clear that the two have a very distinctive writing style. We hear it in “Bucket of Blood” – the midtempo shuffle and the twangy chord changes – as well as the delicate “A Heart Attack on the Holidays,” a plaintive solo acoustic number. Indeed, these were selections from Schlappich’s songbook that he wrote thinking that they may wind up being Frog Holler tracks, but here they’re dressed up in different tones and textures, aided by third-member and studio guru Bruce Siekmann, who sparked the collaboration. Continue reading →

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Unlocked: Download “The End Is Nearer Than We Know” by Ataloft

Ataloft | Photo via Facebook
Ataloft | Photo via Facebook

For almost 17 years, Darren Schlappich and Mike Lavdanski have performed in the Reading-rooted Americana outfit Frog Holler, a band that has developed a loyal following regionally and beyond through engaging live shows and expressive albums that crystalized the the five-piece’s energy as performers into a handy plastic disc.

For these musicians, the new Ataloft came about kind of in reverse. A casual recording project with Bruce Siekmann of Amoeba Audio in Reading clicked in ways the players didn’t expect, and what everybody thought was a one-off collaboration spawned a full album, and a new band.

Though Schlappich regards the two groups as “first cousins,” by working outside of the Frog Holler label, he was able to explore sounds and sonic territories he might never have before. The resulting self-titled album is at once reminiscent of Brian Wilson and John Brion in its lush arrangements, ethereal orchestrations and big sounds – but tips the cap to the roots of these musicians with little florishes, like the banjo we hear on the moving album opener “The End Is Nearer Than We Know.”

We’re exploring the album all week long on Unlocked, The Key’s regular spotlight on new and significant releases from Philadelphia-area artists. Tomorrow we’ll bring you a record review, we’ll spotlight a video on Wednesday, sit down with Schlappich on Thursday, and more. To start things off, download “The End Is Nearer Than We Know” below, and just imagine how haunting it will sound when the band performs it at their Philly album release party May 3rd at Ardmore Music Hall.

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Unlocked: Check out an album of photos from Pattern is Movement’s self-titled record release show at Boot & Saddle

Pattern is Movement | Photo by Mark Schaffer
Pattern is Movement | Photo by Mark Schaffer

Our week closes with a triumphant homecoming for Pattern is Movement. Supported by their fellow Philadelphians Busses and Brooklyn-based Hometapes label mates Yellow Ostrich (featuring ex-We are Scientists drummer Michael Tapper), Pattern is Movement played the penultimate show on their first support tour for Pattern is Movement to a rapturous audience. Tearing through songs from the new record with an ideal balance of hit-by-hit perfection and erratic fluidity (mainly thanks to Chris Ward’s J. Dilla-inspired breaks and Andrew Thiboldeaux’s acrobatic live vocal runs), the band have proven that the gambles they took with their new record are starting to pay off.

Significant praise also goes to Busses and Yellow Ostrich, both of whose idiosyncratic takes on psych rock set an appropriate atmosphere for Pattern is Movement’s ecstatic return. Check out this gallery of photos from local musician and photographer Mark Schaffer.

Pattern is Movement has been the featured album on this week’s edition of Unlocked. Download the song “Suckling in Monday’s post, read Tuesday’s album review, learn about their videos for “Untitled and “Little by Little in Wednesday’s post, read yesterday’s interview, and stay up to date for future editions of Unlocked.

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Unlocked: Pattern is Movement see their mission statement come to its fullest realization

PatternIsMovementCOVER
Pattern is Movement started out as a Christian rap group. You heard it here first.

Well, that’s not completely true. But understanding this side of keyboardist/singer/composer Andrew Thiboldeaux’s and drummer/producer Chris Ward’s experience, rooted in strict Pentacostal practice (the same faith in which Marvin Gaye and D’Angelo nurtured their prodigal musicianship), might explain a lot. It certainly makes the eccentricity inherent to Pattern is Movement’s music – occasionally frantic, layered with intense stimuli and popping with vibrancy at every beat – a little easier to understand. Far more importantly, it allows us to understand the motivation behind what they have tried to do with their new self-titled album. The band celebrate the release of their album tonight at Boot & Saddle.

“Andrew and I started making Christian rap when we were 14, and we were in a Christian rock group when we were teenagers. We were so connected to music that…I think for me, as a 35-year-old musician who’s been doing it for 20 years with this guy, I wanted to go back to the roots of my childhood and figure out why I loved music so hard when I was a kid,” explains Ward over a crackling phone line. He and Thiboldeaux have just pulled into Austin, right on the cusp of an extremely ambitious South By Southwest schedule, but that’s not quite where he’s at mentally. “Rather than running away from that past experience – which was very painful and traumatic – I tried to embrace it and see what about it was positive. One of the things it gave me was this intimate musical relationship with this guy, and I hear a wonderful conversation between the two of us in this record,”

Through these artists’ eyes, the message behind the record becomes clearer and clearer. Past the surface-level complexity is a strong communicative purpose that has been the hallmark of all great music; that said, when Pattern is Movement’s history is looked at under the microscope, their gravitation towards RnB makes perfect sense. RnB as we know it is born of desire to bring the pulpit to the concert hall, to equate ecclesiastical power in a non-sacred setting, to find God in human passion. The genre’s greatest luminaries, folks like Marvin and D, all grew up and became artists in church. The power of music to bring people together in the service of something omniscient and massive is certainly not lost on Ward or Thiboldeaux.

“Chris and I like church, but we’re not so interested in Jesus, so we like the emotion and ecstasy of RnB music,” explains Andrew.

“I started challenging my beliefs and thought that all the stuff I saw – the speaking in tongues, the emotions that I had in service – that all of that was false. And as I got older, I started realizing the opposite. Like, yeah, maybe there is no God, maybe all the stuff they were telling me was bulls***. But the feelings I had in those church meetings were TRUE. My brain was registering it, I was high as a kite. There’s something about RnB and hip-hop that resonates with me as a result,” adds Ward.

This desire to create something ecclesiastically powerful is one of a few missions that guided the new record, but those implications resonate throughout the other circumstances that brought the record about in this form. In the six years between this record and 2008’s All Together, Ward went through a difficult divorce and picked up a full-time job doing bookings at Johnny Brenda’s that he still maintains. These events, mixed with a strong urge to get away from the record-tour-repeat cycle that made their previous albums feel stagnant to them, precipitated a need to step back and re-evaluate. Even though they started tracking songs in 2009, they ended up scrapping a whole mix by 2011, re-recording into 2012 (tracking separately, for the first time in any of their records), and spending 2013 getting things prepared to be played live. They essentially made a record in the way most bands don’t anymore, and they’re fully aware of the sea changes that have happened in the broader world during this time – changes that they, as an indie group authentically embracing RnB and hip-hop, are better prepared than ever to handle.

Continue reading →