Items Tagged Philadelphia: The music of chance and the sounds of silence
Here at The Key, we spend a lot of time each week digging through every new release from Philadelphia that shows up on Bandcamp. At the end of each week, we present you with the most interesting, most unusual and overall best of the bunch: this is Items Tagged Philadelphia.
In a room on the second floor of my house in the East Mt. Airy section of Philly, there’s an air purifier, and it’s always running. The humming oscillations of the motor, the gentle thwack of the belt, and the static rush of air passing through a polymer filter create a background static that dulls the constant sounds of close proximity and rowhome living. It becomes like the proverbial buzzing of the fridge, per Radiohead, or those cars on the interstate passing in the night that my friends in the river wards no longer even notice.
When the air purifier switches off, for whatever reason — it needs maintenance, the power went out, my wife and I can’t hear the record on the turntable — the sensation is almost like waking up, or stepping out of a fog. There’s a sudden clarity, hearing becomes more acute, sounds become more nuanced, details are picked up upon and auditory space is abundant. It’s at once freeing and kind of frightening.
Last year, when I traveled to Minneapolis with World Cafe for a musical tour of the Twin Cities, we found ourselves in an anechoic chamber in a recording studio turned research facility, an experience that I’m glad I had but am not eager to repeat. That space was so dampened, so bunkered down and reinforced, so impossibly quiet that we could collectively hear our own pulses. That level of clarity is staggering, but clarity can be achieved without having a total stranger lock you in soundproof room and walk away for a bit. You can find it simply by listening to the world around you; the rhythms of the train, the melodies of the elevator at work, the textures of the equipment a union crew is using to put up a new skyscraper.
All this esoteric babble directly relates to at least one of the releases I’m spotlighting in this week’s edition of Items Tagged Philadelphia, but it applies to just about anything you put your ears to. Listen; then listen again, a little closer. The more you continue to hear new things, the more you’ll come back.
As one-third of experimental / ambient outfit Hotel Neon, Andrew Tasselmyer has a solid background in creating alluring soundscapes. His solo series, however, combines minimal music with the world around him; he collects found sounds and field recordings, framed up as “an experiment in intentional listening.” What the heck does that mean though? Its kind of like the John Cage choral piece “4’33” that historically gets a lot of flack from folks with the “my kid could do that” mentality. That piece is four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence, concluded with a collective sigh at the end — but the substance isn’t the final breath, it’s everything that’s happening in the room leading up to it. The audience shuffling in their seats, the creak of folding chairs, the sneezes and snickers and heckles from people who think its bullshit. Or, if it’s being performed outdoors in some pastoral setting, it’s the sounds of birds in the sky, planes passing overhead, rustling in the bushes down the way. It’s a choral piece that can never be performed the same way twice since the point of the piece is the happenstance sounds of its environmental setting.
Tasselmyer’s Presence, Volume 3 kind of works on that same principle, collecting sounds from the city and sounds from the country; industrial bustle recorded along the Reading Viaduct and the placid flowing of the Brandywine River. It records the sounds of the air on a clear day and the sounds of storms. With these backdrops in place, Tasselmyer lightly treats them with light drones and notes that harmonize with the world he’s documenting. It’s an approach that could easily backfire — think about those New Agey, synthesizer-forward “Sounds of Nature” relaxation CDs that would fly off the Border’s shelves circa late 90s — but Tasselmyer keeps it tasteful, crafting what he calls “the product of being present.”
Part cabaret diva, part steampunk traveler through space and time, Philly’s Erica Corbo creates an elaborate fiction around her I, America LP — fashioning herself as the captain of an interdimensional traveling vessel and crafting songs that she intends to stand alone as well as part of a greater story. Musically, this is light and playful, reminiscent of Regina Spekor’s early records like 11:11 and Soviet Kitsch — works that are conceptual but also dressed up in a kitchen sink approach to sounds and melodies, toy train whistles and lo-fi drum machines, with Corbo’s prancing jazzy piano and bright voice front and center. The idea behind it seems to be autobiography dressed in metaphor; a human who grew up in the outskirts of a Pennsylvania metropolis finding her way into a bigger, sometimes frightening but often exciting world. It seems this story may have arrived on or around Corbo’s 30th birthday — if the “Captain 022487” means what it seems to mean, anyway — and it provides an enjoyable introduction as the artist hits a personal milestone.I, America has a lively theatrical flare, and the Bandcamp notes say Corbo is working on a full on musical around its songs. But showtunes are not your thing, it’s also easy to dig as a record of pure playful pop.
BIG FAT WORLD TIME
I’ve talked in the past about the profuse amount of beat tapes on Bandcamp, and the varying degrees of quality in such. I don’t want to become jaded with this project, but I’m totally going to sound jaded here — when I realize that’s what’s going on with a certain Bandcamp page I stumble upon, I adjust my expectations mad low. That said, Philly’s Beau Gordon really blew me away with his self-titled debut as Big Fat World Time. Not in the sense that I expected this to be shite and it was actually passable, but in that it’s very good by any standards or expectations. Nuance seems to be the thread this week, and Gordon is very good at nuance in his beats — the crackling of a vinyl record, the skipping of a piano melody, flourishes of light orchestra notes and breezy boom-bap hits that are more varying and complex than repetitious. Fool’s Gold Records, take note.
Local musicians Dani Mullen and Dan Szigeti have been collaborating for the past two years and change, and their latest EP is an unexpected delight. After Oxford Street seems to be a post-move snapshot of a moment in time, told through gently strumming acoustic guitars, plaintive introspective melodies and breathless musings about life. For fans of Ida and Lisa Loeb, Low and The Sundays, for fans also of lowkey Sundays with coffee and nothing but time.
Truong Ta and Johnny Price of local psych heads The Soft Spots struck out on their own with their second collection as Melon Gang, I Tried. The record is indeed fuzzy and psychedelic, with blown out acoustic strums conversing with wailing lead licks, calling to mind Brian Jonestown Massacre. But I wouldn’t reduce this to the garage-psych idiom; there’s a nice undercurrent of breezy tropicalia folk, and even a vibe of Serge Gainsbourg’s less orchestrated moments at points. Great to see these dudes exploring a more inward-oriented approach.