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Cameron Wayne | via Facebook

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.

Say what you will about lo-fi: its practitioners are generic and interchangeable, it’s a relic of the 90s that is contrived as we approach the 2020’s. I mean, I don’t necessarily agree, but those are totally valid perspectives to consider.

What you’ve got to acknowledge in discussing this long-standing approach to independent musicianship: lo-fi is truly a form of art. Sure, there’s the common criticism about unskilled musicians making records that sound crappy (or the common mantra from the artist’s side, about ragtag players doing what they can in the moment with limited means and less-than-stellar gear). I don’t buy either of those interpretations. Have you ever tried to make a bad recording? Like actually tried? It’s freaking difficult! And time-consuming; not in-the-moment at all.

Most likely, for those of the my-kid-could-do-that-school, if I handed you (or your kid) a mic and some tape and a recorder and asked you to make an album that sounds both as noisily blown out AND as energized and fiercely present as Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand, Times New Viking’s Rip It Off or Spacin’s Deep Thuds, the mark would be missed. I’m imaging something that sounds distant, muddy and flat, or straight distorted across the board, with no degree of nuance or balance, no slight hint of clarity allowing you to hone in on a vibrant guitar solo or a catchy vocal lead amid the static.

And on the artistry side of the argument, as much as the creators want us to think they’re not being precious, that they’re taking raw and spontaneous energy and running with it, that’s only true to a degree — for the most most enduring lo-fi stuff (as opposed to the total dregs, of which there is admittedly a healthy supply), a lot of work went into editing the best performances to be gritty but not sloppy, dialing in the appropriate amount of noise so the sounds are roughshod but listenable, making sure each element exists in its own space and using the equipment on hand to manipulate the sounds of the room with personality, not blandness. In short, it’s using the studio itself as an instrument.

Is lo-fi illusory? Possibly. Are the people making lo-fi recordings also capable of making high-end recordings? Absolutely. Do lo-fi tricks of the trade make their way into the world of stepped-up record production? You know it; an early listen last night to The Districtsknockoutnew Popular Manipulations actually kickstarted this train of thought. Braden Lawrence’s drumming on this record is spectacular, and tonally very malleable; at one point, on a song called “Salt,” his snare booms and crackles like a broken bottle. I mean, it’s a real drum, and he’s really playing it, but it sounds so gripping, so much richer, and serves the song so much more, than a perfectly-recorded clean and dry snare drum sound might. To be clear, Popular Manipulations is not a lo-fi record, but would not be possible without them.

A good handful of this week’s offerings on Bandcamp are lo-fi of one form or another, beginning with this latest offering from a local cassette label.


CAMERON WAYNE

Frizzy fried Philly dude Cameron Wayne is a printmaker, collager and Burger Records collaborator originally from Asheville, North Carolina; he brings a visual artist’s addition-and-reduction mindeset to his rock and roll recordings, which tear at your shins (the beats), knuckles (the riffs) and vocal chords (come on, guess). Wayne linked up with local label Suicide Bong Tapes for his new Spiral Mountain LP, which collapses in bluesy midtempo Fidlar territories on cuts like “Battered,” but don’t worry — a mind-bending Beck heartracer like “Bag Of Bliss,” with its stomping rhythm and cerebral dives into delay pedal modulation and dissonance, are never far.

SNAKEBOY

One of my favorite things about Bandcamp: the genre names. Like the one adopted by local four piece Snakeboy, “dormcore.” Their Vices single, recorded at The Metal Shop by Jake Ewald, is two songs of delightful jangle pop in the vein of Letters to Cleo and Tokyo Police Club that stays on the cool side of infectious, and if bands this awesome had been playing in the dorm back in my Temple days, I would not have been as quick to haul ass into off campus housing.

SUEDE PERSUASION

Garagey, catchy and timeless, Philly’s Suede Persuasion have a Gene Autrey sense of twang and bravado — they fancy themselves cowpunk after all — but that’s Gene Autrey as filtered through The Tough Shits. Craig Almquist produced their new three-song Serf EP which, yes, does sound a little surfy in addition to being super suave.

NARRA

The five humans of emo / pop outfit Narra have been hitting the Philly house show scene hard over the past six months, and the band is ready to at long last release its self-titled debut LP this June. Based on the newly-released album opener “Best Parts” (and album closer “22,” which they released in December) it is likely the result of closely studying Superchunk and Get Up Kids records — which are totally great places to turn for inspiration. But the band puts its own spin and energy on a classic approach as only a hard-grinding five piece from the Philly show scene can. Narra was recorded with Evan Bernard and Chris Baglivo at Big Mama’s and I’m stoked to listen to the entire thing.

FALCON DREAM

Think lo-fi applies only to rock music? Oh no, think again. Joy Donnini’s project Falcon Dream bathes in ghostly synthesizer tones, atmospheric static and echo, conjuring moods that are distant and inscrutable, serene one moment and unsettling the next. It’s reminiscent of the early days of Cocteau Twins, an existential echoplex that will ease you into tranquility while haunting your dreams.

AVONTI THE NEPHILIM

While we’re in that slow and low zone of mystery and mystique, check the latest from local rapper Avonti The Nephilm. The set opens with an aggressive and braggadocious cut that almost turned me off the project entirely, but thankfully I hung with Ansatsuken: Tenchu — when it’s not going for trendy trap vibes, it’s a spiritual and meditative set, basting in bass tones and dub drones and drawing on eastern and western philosophies and religious outlooks to ruminate on the meaning of life.

FALLIBLE BEING

Earnest and engaging folk punk three-piece Fallible Being echoes the style and delivery of Against Me! and Mischief Brew: crunchy acoustic strums and fist-flying refrains delivered with gusto and passion, lyrics that are introspective as much as outer-directed. Joe Martin on voice and guitar, Will Schwarz on bass and James Udinsky on drums play with abandon on their eponymous EP, which released last Thursday.

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