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The Key Studio Sessions: Arnetta Johnson and SUNNY

Camden, New Jersey trumpeter Arnetta Johnson doesn’t like being put in a box — not herself, nor anybody else.

On a recent Sunday night as we were setting up for a Key Studio Session, Johnson and the members of her band SUNNY got in a spirited debate over gospel music versus jazz music. First it was about which style was the originator — yes, we all know that the distinctly midcentury format of gospel was the launching point into soul, and then rock and roll, and jazz’s roots in the early 20th century predate all of that. But aren’t hymns and spirituals early iterations of gospel? And so if you consider them, isn’t gospel a precursor to jazz, and not vice versa? This went on for a while, and then the discussion shifted to which style yielded better musicians — was it jazz, whose players boast technical prowess and excel at innovation, or gospel, whose brightest stars connect in a massive way?

By the time we were ready to soundcheck, Johnson put a swift end to the back-and-forth with some on-point, on-brand wisdom. “Why do we have to think of ourselves as jazz musicians or gospel musicians?” she asked. “That’s putting a limit on what you do and how you sound. Why can’t we just be ‘musicians’?” Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Spelling Reform

Philadelphia indie rock four-piece Spelling Reform is a band that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve — but with influences this good, can we really complain?

As you listen to the band’s Key Studio Session, it’s impossible not to hear a little bit of 80s R.E.M. in the way singer-songwriter and guitarist Dan Wisniewski shares harmonies and trades counterpoint lines with bassist Tom Howley on the buoyant opener “The Second Coming.” Or the way the expansive closer “Merriweather Lewis on the Divide” begins on fervent Feelies-esque strumming, and then launches into a Weakerthans thump care of drummer Mark Rybaltowski. The chords and textures from new keyboardist Jim Gannon add a Pernice Brothers feel to the proceedings, and there are more than trace levels of The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle in Wisniewski’s upper-register delivery (giving way to their self-depricating self-description, “nasal indie rock”).

Okay, then, we get it — Spelling Reform sounds like a lot of acclaimed, bookish-cool indie rock bands from the past 20 years. But they bring their own perspective to the table care of Wisniewski’s clever turns of phrase and cogent lyrical vignettes. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Baroness

Baroness | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Scorching riffs and pulsing drums are two sounds you’d readily associate with Baroness if their albums were all you had to go off of. But these titans of the American metal scene, who call Philadelphia home, have lately taken to dialing down the volume — but not the intensity.

The first time we caught an acoustic Baroness set, it was at Boot and Saddle, where lead singer John Dyer Baizley was opening for Strand of Oaks’ Winter Classic in 2017. He brought lead guitarist and vocalist Gina Gleason along with him, and they played haunting renditions of cuts from the band’s most recent outing, 2015’s Purple. The way the songs transformed was remarkable; as we heard a generation ago in the MTV Unplugged era, not every heavy piece of music necessarily benefits from being stripped down to only an acoustic backing. And Baroness gets it: just because you’ve packed away the effects pedals and amplifiers, and given the drummer the day off, doesn’t mean you’ve arrived at something profound. Taking a song down to its skeleton can sometimes be a beautiful thing, and other times it’s an opportunity to rebuild in a new direction.

That night at Boot and Saddle, we saw Baroness take that opportunity, with thrilling results. The gravity of rock rager “Shock Me” came across palpably with urgent strums and impassioned cries, while “Chlorine and Wine” delved into the European folk influences suggested by its chord progression. Gleason tackled a nimble solo that danced up and down the fretboard, and shared subdued, yet moving harmonies with Baizley. We heard that version of “Chlorine and Wine” open up the band’s acoustic Key Studio Session this week, which comes on the tail end of something of an acoustic spring for Baroness. Continue reading →

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Watch a breathtaking performance by Philly instrumental ensemble Hour for Folkadelphia and The Key Studio Sessions

The seven members of Philadelphia instrumental ensemble Hour are intricately aligned, the pieces they play fitting together perfectly like a puzzle. In a recent visit to WXPN studios, the band showcased music from each of its two albums, last year’s moving Anemone Red — whose compositions are gradual bloomers, but deeply affecting, approximating the haunting film score for a naturalistic drama — and 2017’s Tiny Houses — an exercise in minimalism, and crafting sonic spaces marked by absence more than presence. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Cabana Wear

There’s something of a common thread in all the bands we’ve seen South Jersey’s Brian Mietz play in over the course of the past decade.

Whether you’re talking the mathy pop of It’s A King Thing, or the poppy introspection of The Not Fur Longs, Mietz has a penchant for irresistible hooks and inviting melody, for nerdish wordplay and 90s style fuzz-tones, and for a sensitive outlook that’s presented in a somewhat self-deprecating way.

We see all of that at play in his new outfit, Cabana Wear, which is the summertime alt-rock project of singer-guitarist Mietz, teamed up with Haddon Heights, NJ scene peers: bassist Dan Saraceni (of By Surprise) guitarist Alec McVey (of Aspiga) and drummer Eric McConathey (of Brackish). Drop the needle on the tidal pool blue vinyl of their self-titled debut LP and you’re greeted with crunchy guitars and bright riffs paying homage to their power pop inspirations from Big Star to Nada Surf to Weezer and beyond.  Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: The Warhawks

Maybe it’s their working-class roots in Gloucester City, New Jersey, but the work ethic exhibited by rock and roll four-piece The Warhawks is tough to match.

We first met them at WXPN care of the Jake Rabid-hosted Local Show on our XPN2 webstream, and they were just-out-of-high-school teenagers who had already spent years hustling their music at shows around the Delaware Valley and online. They impressed us with a revved-up proto-Key Sessions set featuring serious Kings of Leon vibes; five knockout songs, blazed through on a Sunday afternoon. A couple years later, I ran into them on the streets of Austin, Texas and saw that work ethic in action again when they literally showed up to an unofficial SXSW showcase I was watching and talked their way onto the bill. Chatting to them afterward, that was pretty much their plan — pile in their van, drive to Austin, get their music of the hands of anyone who would listen, play every street corner that would take them.

They’ve kept me in the know about every piece of music they’ve put out since then — brash garage rock bruisers collected on like 2011’s Thief, or 2012’s Ordinary Time. And after a while, I admittedly almost began to take The Warhawks for granted as part of our local music fabric: four dudes who kicked out reliably asskicking projects now and again.

And then this year’s Never Felt So Good happened. And it was that level-up that we’d all been waiting for.

Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Slingshot Dakota

With this appearance, Lehigh Valley indie pop duo Slingshot Dakota joins the Key Studio Sessions three-timers’ club. And while we haven’t yet decided if members of their elite society get a jacket, we can tell you that watching artists grow over a span of years and albums — and instudio performances — is something truly special.

In 2013, singer-keyboardist Carly Comando and drummer Tom Patterson were two contagiously upbeat people with catchy songs, deep feelings, and a record called Dark Hearts that showcased all of those things. In 2016, a Break-era session found them more at a more complicated place, and writing songs that reflected the good and the bad of adulting; the deepening of relationships as well as the frustration of not moving as quickly in life as you’d like.

Their solution: keep getting louder, as the lead single of their tremendous new record Heavy Banding suggests. It’s 2019, Slingshot Dakota are writing the best songs of their career, and as a musical two-piece they are more tightly in sync than we’ve ever seen — a connection that obviously carries over to Comando and Patterson’s marriage as well. (Keep tabs on their social media for lots of #couplegoals content, and find even more in this ongoing photo essay by photographer Matt Smith.) Continue reading →

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Watch Native Harrow perform “Can’t Go On Like This” in WXPN studios for Folkadelphia

Native Harrow | photo by Gabriela Barbieri for WXPN

Philly area singer-songwriter Devin Tuel founded her duo Native Harrow back in 2011 in Woodstock, New York, where she connected with drummer and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Harms; since then they’ve moved to Philly, then spent a nomadic year on the road, and as of this winter are back in the Chester County burbs with a new record called Happier Now under their belts. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Yarrow

With all due respect to the bassists of the world, I respect the hell out of artists that don’t buy into rock and roll convention, that firmly jettison the four-stringed low end from their instrumental setup. When they do that and sound as thrilling as Philly’s Yarrow, all the better.

Fronted by some familiar punk scene faces — Christo Johnson of King Azaz, Meri Haines of Great Weights — the band takes the Sleater-Kinney guitar-guitar-drums power trio approach, but with the density and catharsis of Drive Like Jehu’s “Luau.” Or, as our Yoni Kroll put it when he named Yarrow one of his favorite new Philly bands last year, Yarrow feels like it’s “channeling Slint and Unwound but in a perfectly pissed off kind of way.” In short: it’s heavy stuff.

Ahead of their appearance this Saturday, May 25th at Break Free Fest — the third annual edition of the festival centering black and brown artists in punk and hardcore — Yarrow (rounded out by drummer Dani Elephant) came by WXPN studios to play an explosive set of songs from A Mild Circus, their February release on Get Better Records. Continue reading →

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The Key Studio Sessions: Tact

Philly indie-punk staple Cat Park is commanding and cathartic on her latest project, channeling anger and aggression into the edgy noise rock of Tact.

Launched in late 2017 with drummer Jarret Nathan of Pears and also bassist Evan Demianczyk of Pocket — with guitarist Josh Agran of Paint It Black joining the fold more recently — the band’s music is a stark contrast to the cerebral pop of Park’s best-known band Amanda X, or the hooky nuggets of Eight, another of her projects.

In Tact, distorted guitars screech and squeal, Nathan’s drums thunder, and Park poetically details observations on the outside world in a mixture of sung and spoken word lyrics; a little bit Kim Gordon, a little bit Patti Smith. Continue reading →