Unlocked: The Key’s review of Relief by Vacationer

Vacationer’s Relief | via

Relief is full of what one might describe as “Bali Hai” moments.

The album is Philadelphia dream pop band Vacationer’s sophomore release, out today via Downtown Records. Though it features modern technology – electric guitars, vibraphone flourishes and Logic-produced beats – Relief echoes the score of 1949 Rogers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific.” In the show, Bali Hai is the name of the magical, mysterious island that is seen as an exotic paradise to the main characters. The native Tonkinese people invite American troops fighting during World War II to visit the island, and it becomes a tropical haven for the soldiers to forget about the fighting and killing that surrounds them. Every time that Bali Hai is mentioned or seen off in the distance, the show’s score elicits waves of brass, strings and a chorus of voices that bolster the island’s enchanting qualities.

The musical motif that starts Relief feels like an invitation from Vacationer to join the band on its own version of Bali Hai. Voices swell and fifes sound as the album launches into the first track, “Stay,” and frontman Kenny Vasoli sings, “Want you to taste summer winds as they’re gusting around/ I want you shaking those habits just in time, worth it if you look around.”

On Vacationer’s enchanted musical island, there are definitely no signs of the war, racism or other hardships that thicken the plot of “South Pacific.” But Relief also isn’t all chill waves, summer sun and good vibes like its predecessor, 2012’s Gone. Continue reading →


Unlocked: Download “In The Grass” from Vacationer’s sophomore album Relief


Photo via

Vacationer wrote “In The Grass,” along with most recent single “Wild Life,” in the span of one day. Both tracks are featured on the Philadelphia-based, self-proclaimed “Nu Hula” band’s sophomore release, Relief, out tomorrow on Downtown Records.

“They were both buzzer-beaters,” says bassist and frontman Kenny Vasoli, adding jokingly, “we were already mixing the record and the label sort of kindly asked us to write more. They were like, “Hey this is great, but can you write more stuff that’s better?”

What the label wanted were radio hits, and what they got were two summer anthems that showed no signs of being a rushed job. “In The Grass” has a notable disco feel that the band attributes to its affinity for LCD Soundsystem. It’s a prime example of the broader range of influences that Vacationer called upon for Relief, the highly anticipated follow up to their 2012 break-out debut, Gone.

And though they aimed to do things a little differently this time around, Vacationer still delivers on Relief what has become their mantra about the power of music – it’s exotic, layered, blissful dream pop that has the ability to take the listener far, far away from here. Rife with smart riffs, genuine beats and good vibes, Relief isn’t just the soundtrack to summer 2014 — it’s the feel-good LP that you’ll want to give a spin, no matter what the season.

“Overwhelmed over nothing,’ Vasoli sings. “When the days start dragging, mood starts dragging you down … You can lay your head down in the grass. Be yourself with open eyes, every time.”

Sometimes it really is that easy.

Download “In The Grass” above, courtesy of Downtown Records. Check back throughout this week as we spotlight Relief on Unlocked, The Key’s regular spotlight on new and significant releases by Philadelphia area artists. Tomorrow we’ll post a review of the album, Wednesday we’ll chronicle live videos from a few of the band’s local shows, Thursday we’ll have a feature interview and Friday we’ll provide an inside glimpse into the everyday lives of a Vacationer.



Unlocked: Things discovered on City Rain’s two-and-a-half day train journey from Philadelphia to Austin

Photo courtesy of the artist
Photo courtesy of the artist

When City Rain played SXSW this year, frontman Ben Runyan made the trip not by car, bus or plane, but on a two-and-a-half day rail trek. For the final installment of the band’s Unlocked spotlight, we share his experience in the form of an essay written on the ride home.

Life is a tremendously meticulous and fragile gift. It involves risk. It involves bravado…..brashness……insanity. To make the “right” decisions for yourself the only way to be vindicated is to dive in. I remember leaving the train station from NYC with a 55 hr train ride Into the unknown wondering if I was in over my head. Hell, everyone had told me I was crazy for doing this. Take a plane they said….. What was I thinking. Shall I return to the “safety of home”? Or shall I press on Into the night to a place I’ve never been — with people I’ve never met — around confines I’ve never Iived within…… I’d become a bit predictable up to this point and wanted to try something big. But this trip —- well this trip turned everything on it’s head in ways I could never imagine.

IMG_2291America is best seen by train. Not because its not being done. Not because some hipster steampunk that thinks we should return to the days of locomotive and horse (could be cool) and not because I’m afraid of flying (I am). I’ts best seen by train because of what you SEE —- which is to say there’s a big America out there… It’s a shock to most to know that you can travel across the entire country by AMTRAK. NYC to LA. PHL to CHI. CHI TO AUS. Our rail lines zig zag across this great country as directly and wildly as plane routes, albeit longer and shared by freight trains. Yes years ago our country failed to have foresight into the needs of the American rail system or high speed rail that our Asian and Europeans brothers utilize. A high speed rail system analogous to the ones europeans have could bring us from NYC to LA in 10 hours. But who could blame them; the car was the future as early as the 1910′s. Cars are the future they said.

My trip started out about 2 blocks away from my house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Continue reading →


Unlocked: How a trip to the Jersey Shore in the winter brought City Rain’s new album to life


In early 2013, when Ben Runyan and Scott Cumpstone began working on the music that would become City Rain‘s new LP Songs for a High School Dance, they worked in fits and starts.

Runyan would lay out a tapestry of beats and send it to Cumpstone, who would add guitar florishes and shoot it back. Ideas would build, songs would develop. But there was never a more concentrated block of recording than maybe two hours in a shot.

“It was a lot more like The Postal Service,” Runyan reasons. “Moreso than feeling truly like a band.”

This changed when the duo decided to wrap up High School Dance with a vacation. Runyan and Cumpstone traveled to Avalon, New Jersey, in early December, holed up in a family shore house and found their voice as a band.

“The shore is a great place to go in the off-season,” Cumpstone says. “Nobody is there. Everything’s closed. It allowed us to really focus, and to have more than half a night to get stuff done with the record.”

Runyan describes the experience as intensely creative experience of trying ideas, scrapping ideas, arguing over sounds and arrangements, walking away for a cool-off walk on the beach and returning back to the fray. But it resulted in the album taking the dynamic shape it has. Rather than 12 tracks of high-BPM dance beats, High School Dance has a rise and fall – midtempo and hushed moments in addition to the dancefloor ragers.

“Walls” emerged from a guitar line Cumpstone was jamming on during downtime that Runyan heard potential in; album closer “Mama I Want to Go Home” emerged from one of those beach walks, and the duo rushed in to get their acoustic guitar and microphones and laid down the song with the waves in the background. Continue reading →


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.


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 →


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.


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 →


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 →


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