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The Key Studio Sessions: The Low Road

From 1991 to 1997, The Low Road warmed hearts and fed minds in the Philadelphia music scene and far beyond. Call them roots, call them Americana, call them indie-folk — they’ve heard all those descriptions, and they’re fitting. But with the band playing two reunion shows this spring, some re-evaluation of the music The Low Road was making in the time that they made it is in order, and with that, you can also see a stateside equivalent of a band to whom they’re not oft compared: Belle & Sebastian.

Sure, The Low Road predated Belle & Seb by about five years, and one is decidedly more Scottish than the other. But think about it: in times when the dominant rock sounds were aggressive, distortion pedal punk dirges or grandiose, aspirational arena-ready anthems, these artists went inward. They drew on the folk traditions of their respective home countries and a time-tested approach to pop songwriting, and used those things as a backdrop to observational, highly literary lyrical stories. Their songs captured the concerns and emotions of being an introverted twenty-to-thirtysomething out of sorts with their surroundings but nevertheless trying to find a way. In that sense, Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner’s Philadelphia is not unlike Stuart Murdoch’s Glasgow, and in these songs, they take us right into that world.

Earlier this month, a reunited Low Road — singer-guitarist Brenner, singer-violinist Rosie McNamara-Jones, drummer Mark Schreiber, bassist Alan Hewitt, and vocalist / percussionist Palmer Yale — performed at WXPN studios, a warmup for their two June 1st shows at World Cafe Live, and played a set of songs that bring Philadelphia life circa early 90s to vivid life. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Big Nothing

Is three songwriters too many? Not when you’re talking about Philadelphia’s Big Nothing. The DIY rock four-piece finds singer-guitarists Pat Graham and Matt Quinn, and singer-bassist Liz Parsons, all sharing equal time at the microphone, and the vibe you’ll get from song to song shifts depending on who’s taking lead. Quinn’s jams sit best alongside the gravelly anthems of The Menzingers and Gaslight Anthem, while Parsons leans decidedly more indiepop (think that dog.) and Graham is all about spirited power pop with Replacements-style feeling.

What unifies Big Nothing, beyond their name and their collective great taste, is remarkably tight playing — snappy fuzz pedal jams propelled by drummer Chris Jordan and kicked out with expeditious run times of three minutes or fewer — not to mention experience, which stretches from West Chester’s Spraynard (Graham) to Gainesville’s Young Livers (Jordan). Non-musical bonus round: in addition to their respective roots in Casual and Crybaby, Parsons and Quinn are part of the team behind the amazing West Philly vegan bakery Dottie’s Donuts. In short, these people know how to kick out the jams as well as they know their plant-based treats, and after convening in Philly in 2017 to release their debut EP, Big Nothing will release their debut LP Chris this Friday on Detroit label Salinas Records.  Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Empath

We weren’t even ten minutes into setting up for Empath‘s Key Studio Session this week and conversation had already shifted from record pressings and tour schedules to laser light shows and the prospect of finding one that works at a basement gig scale.

Which, for four people dubbed “2018’s trippiest punk band” by Rolling Stone, it’s not entirely surprising. On the one hand, the booming low end blasts from Randall Coon’s Moog bass synthesizer throw us back to the cutting indie-dance of The Faint, or earlier to the sheen 90s noise-popsters Stereolab, earlier still to 70s experimentalists Suicide, while singer-guitarist Catherine Elicson spends the outro of “Soft Shape” coaxing caustic squeals out of her instrument, feverishly picking way up the fretboard in a frenzy reminiscent of Sonic Youth and Versus. Empath is punk at heart, and when it wants to hit, it hits hard and unrelenting, choosing the path of vivid and visceral expression over a more approachable conventionality.

But listen to their performance of “Hanging Out of Cars,” another song from their new Active Listening: Night on Earth, and a spark of serenity enters the picture. The introductory minute and a half of warbling guitar, racing rhythms and lyrics about travel, freedom, and desire give way to an ambient expanse. For the next four minutes, we’re adrift in upper-register keyboard pulsations from Emily Shanahan, soft and subtle free-time beats by drummer Garrett Koloski, bubbling loops from Koon, waves of sound from Elicson, with an underbelly of windchimes, bird sounds, and a voice murmuring indistinctly. It’s peaceful without being overly pretty, a potent improvisation in the spirit of Pink Floyd at Pompeii, and an immersive experience for performers as much as the spectators. Watching from the mixing console, the phrase Active Listening clicked in a big way. I also realized that, yeah, they weren’t at all joking about those laser lights. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Full Bush

There are various reasons we’ve been losing our minds over Philly rock four-piece Full Bush these past couple years, but honestly, the biggest one might be how real they are.

Sure, they’ve got awesome moments of cheeky and clever commentary. They deservedly take down busted dudes in “Ill Tempered,” with indomitable vocalist Kate Breish hysterically running down a litany of shortcomings (“your mom still pays for your phone, you’re a virgin, and you can’t drive”) over wiry punk arrangements from guitarist Jayne Rutter, bassist Cassie O’Leary, and drummer Adesola Ogunleye. Meanwhile, the amazing garage rocker “Ray’s” looks to the famed South Philly dive for cathartic release from work-life ennui and toxic people in a gang-vocal shoutalong: “I! JUST! WANNA! GET! FUCKED UP!”

It’s catchy, it’s fun, it’s funny. But Full Bush are so much more than a funny band. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Low Dose

Like a lot of Philadelphians who encountered them last summer, I was completely taken by surprise the first time I saw Low Dose. It was one of their first-ever shows, it took place at the Everybody Hits batting cages, was headlined by the always-galvanizing Soul Glo, and found the bandmates setting up gear in the wake of an instrument-slamming set by post-hardcore ragers Great Weights — in other words, they were bookended by two fellow Philadelphia punk scene players who don’t skimp on the captivating energy.

Not that it was an obstacle. Frontwoman Itarya Rosenberg stood quietly holding the mic, a brutal guitar riff began looping out of the speakers, and it was like a switch flipped on — bandmates Mike McGinnis on guitar, Jon DeHart on bass, and Dan Smith on drums launched into a crushing jam, Rosenberg crouched to the floor, and howled. I stood to the side, next to Great Weights’ Meri Haines, and we both watched drop-jawed and awestruck. Twenty minutes of poppy hooks, dissonant freakouts, and general punk catharsis later, we looked at one another all like “What the hell was that?”

Low Dose, to put it lightly, knows how to make a formidable first impression. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Sophie Coran

Making music is a process of constant re-invention. Meticulously crafted studio recordings are re-shaped onstage, the onstage energy influences the direction of the next studio recordings, and the cycle continues back and forth over an artist’s lifespan.

Sophie Coran has already experienced quite a bit of that in her four years as a singer and songwriter working around Philadelphia. Her earliest work, the Better EP from 2015, took on a piano-driven identity in the vein of Carly Simon and Paula Cole. Last year, her follow-up, All that Matters, folded in elements of jazz and soul. And as Coran began playing shows around town in support of that release, she connected with Logan Roth and Arjun Dube of the experimental instrumental band Trap Rabbit. They became her live band, and the chemistry she developed with them — as well as bassist Mike Morrongiello — pushed her music into new realms.

The recent “Duller Star” single is the first example we’re hearing of collaboration. It’s a song that breathes in a husky tenor, its melodic skeleton fusing with Roth’s layers of synthesizer soundbanks and melodic leads to create an arty pop air reminiscent of Fiona Apple. There’s also a rhythmic pulse, care of Dube, that isn’t too far off from the crowd-galvanizing concepts of EDM.

Watch the video below as the song opens on a solitary Coran, playing her Nord and singing about a cigarette abandoned on the nightstand. As the verse progress, Morrongiello’s bass enters along with Roth’s keys, gently at first, and then becoming more defined. They unite with Dube’s drum stand pings and light rhythms, until the cymbals emphatically swish, then breathlessly cut to silence at the end of the pre-chorus. The beat drops. The song is under way. And as I said in an NPR blurb about Coran earlier this week, it will “in its own, downtempo jazz-pop kind of way, get you moving.”

Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Kayleigh Goldsworthy

We were fortunate enough this week to catch Kayleigh Goldsworthy in a rare moment of respite.

Whether residing or just passing through, the singer-songwriter and guitarist has been all around these United States — many of the places that pop up in her songs, like Portland and Nashville and New York — and for the past year and change, she’s called Philadelphia home. The concept of “home” in some ways is a bit nebulous, though, since Goldsworthy is always on the go. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Grandchildren

“All right, are y’all ready to rock?” I asked the members of Grandchildren as we finished setup and soundcheck in WXPN studios last month…and drummer Roman Salcic had the perfect response: “We are ready to art-pop!”

Truly I love the idea of “art-pop” as a verb. It’s an active phrase, definitely more active than the word “rock” — which, if it wasn’t the name of a legacy music genre named after a colloquialism for sex, would be a simple and unimpressive noun, a word for a heavy and blunt geological material. By comparison, the activity implied by “art-pop” feels vivid and full of imagination. Which is a perfect description of the consistent trait that has defined this adventurous Philadelphia band for the past decade. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Masie Blu

Philly’s Masie Blu was vying for an unsigned artist spot at the 2017 Firefly Music Festival when she first grabbed The Key’s attention with the gauzey, cirrocumulus soundscape of “Kundalini.”

Masie wound up not winning that competition (called the “Big Break Contest” or something of a similar nature), and in a way, she’s probably all the better for it. For sure, she would have played a striking set at the Delaware megafestival, and while she isn’t averse to traditional venue gigs, her meditative style is much more at home in art spaces and open mics, in yoga studios and living rooms, in community centers with ital food simmering very nearby.

Masie Blu’s music circles around themes of love, creativity, and personal transcendence, and with the release of last year’s uplifting Transform EP, she brought her skills as a producer and songwriter to new heights, delivering soaring, Erykah Badu-esque melodies to imaginative tapestries of bright horns and buoyant beats. The set she played for The Key Studio Sessions touches on all of that, with the aid of two backing musicians: Antonio Robinson on electric upright bass, and Nathaniel Savoth on electric guitar.

The instrumental arrangements added light and texture to songs like the dancefloor groover “Mocha,” and the atmospheric zen koan “Warm Reflection of Cool Hues.” Their collective playing also transformed Masie’s music further, with the cosmic spoken word bounce of set closer “Balance,” where Masie folded up her laptop and riffed along to reflective instrumental licks as she accompanied her bandmates on kalimba.       Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Foxtrot and the Get Down

It’s hard to believe, but Philly rock faves Foxtrot and the Get Down are coming up on eight years in the scene. Like any good band active for that amount of time, they’ve grown — and I’m not just talking about going from the duo project of West Chester University friends Colin Budny (guitar and vocals) and Ken Bianco (bass) to the soaring six-piece band that filled WXPN studios this week. I’m also talking about growth sonically and stylistically.

In the beginning, and even a decent way into the mid-period, Foxtrot’s bag was bare-knuckled bluesy modern rock, amped up and aggressive. They’re still a loud band with a big sound, mind you, but today they boast an expanded scope and a dynamic range — something that came first with Erica Ruiz joining the band on keys and vocals in 2014, and then with the 2017 release of Roots Too Deep on Nashville’s American Echo Records, where the band began to incorporate country and folk melodies and arrangements into their poppy rock fold.

They’ve been releasing singles one-by-one in the couple years since then — and playing them for massively engaged crowds ready to dance, as we saw in a high-energy throwdown at Firefly last summer — and the latest batch of songs finds the band diving deep into the American soul stylings of Motown and Stax Records. All that is to say that the Foxtrot and the Get Down that joined us for The Key Studio Sessions is the expansive R&B-minded Foxtrot, fleshed out by saxophone leads from Will Schade and guitar licks from Collin O’Donnell, propelled by percussion from Jimmy Iovine, and not at all shy about flexing their prowess in a near-seven minute cover of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You,” which Ruiz totally slays on the vocal front before letting just about everybody in the room take a solo.

Continue reading →