Items Tagged Philadelphia: Acid jazz, indie rock aesthetics and more
If there was any lingering doubt in your head that a lot goes on musically in the Philadelphia region, do me a favor. Next time you’re on the wonderful independent music-streaming site Bandcamp, do a tag search on Philadelphia. A lot of releases show up, right? Do it again in a couple days. A completely new cycle of releases.
Musicians in Philadelphia, or who might be Philly-adjacent but strongly identify with the city enough to claim it in their metadata, are a massively productive lot. This is true across the genre-spectrum. Basement punk. Bedroom hip-hop. Billboard-chart-aspiring singer-songwriters. Sure, it’s not all amazing, but the amount of good that you’ll find — and the new artists you’ll discover — is remarkable. Which leads to our new feature here on The Key, Items Tagged Philadelphia.
We’re going to spend some time with every single item on on Bandcamp’s Philadelphia tag this year; at the end of each week, we’ll present you a handful of the most interesting releases we find. Ground rules: they can’t be by artists we’ve written about before on The Key — the focus here is discovery. They have to be found via sorting by recent arrivals; re-releases of music from the distant past aren’t out of the question, but it’s got to be really compelling stuff.
And that’s about it. I don’t want to make this too complicated, since in the time since I finalized this week’s selections this morning, another fifteen or so new releases made their way online, so I’ve got some listening to do.
Years ago, before I worked at WXPN, I entertained thoughts of grad school and a master’s degree in something-or-other that thankfully didn’t pan out because I didn’t know what the heck I was doing with my life at that point. On the positive side, I did enroll in a handful of interesting post-undergrad courses along the way, like the one on Art and Politics I took with my friend and coworker Jen. It gave a fascinating view of the various intersections of visual expression and governmental power, from propaganda to repression. However, it was filled with lots and lots of heady and dreary readings on semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and their significance in art and literature and philosophy and society as written by lifer academics who have absolutely no evident clue how to translate complex ideas to something digestible by people who exist, to some degree or other, in the real world. Which is part of the reason I’m glad grad school did not pan out. I remember one class in particular where we were handed another damn reading by another damn blowhard going on for thousands of words on the topic and Jen and I looked at each other and said “Uggh, I hate semiotics.”
The band Semiotics though? I do not hate them. I must wonder, however, if they had a similar experience as me, a semester with a bang-head-on-desk prof that caused them to reclaim the word — and it is a pretty cool-sounding word — with a lively collection of pop-punky indie rock. Think LVL Up, The Front Bottoms, Modern Baseball. Guitar riffs and hooky vocal melodies, gang vocals filling out the refrain. The Philly-via-Lehigh-Valley four piece is comprised of Nick Rapon and Seth Blissenbach, both on vocals and guitar, along with Andrew “Crispy” Auyeung on bass and Alex Manoski on drums. Their debut EP, For How, was originally released about a year ago, but got a reissue on December 20th through Nazareth cassette label OK Sweet Records.
There’s not a ton of information out there about this new Philly hardcore punk band, beyond first names. I dig that about it, though; the whole concept of mystique. As long as you can’t see what’s in this hand, you’ll always want it more, per Jimmy Fallon in Almost Famous. That film is one of my faves — it’s decidedly not punk, but it makes some poignant observations about the industry and about life and I return to it often.
Returning to Bleedside, though, how about those names? Ashly is the vocalist; Devin plays bass; Chris plays drums; Spencer and Brandon are guitarists. I know various musical Philadelphians with these first names, but not enough to speculate on their identities. Besides, that’s not the point. Bleedside is an identity unto itself; on its self-titled tape, recorded by Kyle Gilbride of Wherever Audio, explosive expressive triple-time playing is captured in raw and in-the-moment recordings. Ashly’s voice is a torch aflame, lighting up the minute-and-a-half bursts of energy with searing howls. The lyrics are heavy reflections on mental health and social inequality; take the powerful opening couplet of “Deny the Shame”: “Benefiting from national personality disorder / translated to a free pass to murder.” No punches pulled, and the album art is equally brutal, a bloody body on a street stuck with something like 28 knives.
Speaking of not a ton of information being out there about an artist, all I can really gather about Kevin Ripley is that he’s a drummer who’s worked with some rad people like Lee “LeBeet” Clarke and he released two records on January 3rd. Ah Me Ah You is an solidly average collection of sampler-oriented electronic grooves — spend too much time with the myriad beat tapes of Bandcamp, and they all sort of start to morph together in homogeny, a testament to the vision it takes for a producer to really up their game and really stand out.
Ripley’s Three Changes, however, does stand out. The collection takes a decidedly more acid jazz bent — I’m reminded of Barry Adamson’s contribution to David Lynch’s Lost Highway — and the credits indicate that Ripley worked with a lot of players on this one. Guitarist Dave Marion pops up, along with alto sax player Jarrett Gilgore, tenor sax player Sam Greenfield and mbira player Jake Hager. Giving the collection its heart and soul throughout is vocalist Najwa Parkins, who makes a soaring introduction on “Five Inside.” While Ripley can pull off the lone-wolf producer okay enough, he shines the most when he’s got a team to execute his vision.
VINNIE WIT DA SWAG
Corny name; not so corny behind the mic. This Philly rapper also saw two releases make their way onto the realms of Bandcamp on January 1st; the Vintage project is a decent listen, but has the personality of a portfolio. Which is to say, the songs mix up a pot of styles to show everything that Vindetta is capable of in one set. It’s good all around, but isn’t a font-to-back listen sort of affair.
Visions Intelligence and Consciousness, however, is poised to be that release for Vinnie. Due out on March 1st (with nine out of 14 songs streaming now though), the record’s production is more fully-realized, from boom bap to 808 trap, and more melodic elements than average bubble to the surface. Vinnie’s flow is confident and commanding; his lyrics are better when he’s not rapping about how awesome his flow is, but we’ll give him a pass this time. Seriously, though, he vividly illustrates the codependency of a relationship in the shadow of addiction on “Overdose,” and ponders mortality on “Angels Pt. 1,” and I’d love to hear him explore this avenue more.