Sieve | photo by Tiny Haddad | courtesy of the artist
Items Tagged Philadelphia: Smash the decks, smash the system
Here at The Key, we spend a lot of time digging through every new release from Philadelphia that shows up on Bandcamp. Periodically, we’ll check in to present you with the most interesting, most unusual and overall best of the bunch: this is Items Tagged Philadelphia.
I’m coming off of a month of more DJing-in-public gigs than I ever expected to have in my life, and I’ve reached the conclusion that I have a lot of work to do towards becoming a better DJ.
I’m not particularly showoffy about it. I don’t beat match, I don’t do mash mixes. The closest I get to clever during my sets is when I line up two songs that echo one another — like Friday night before Dr. Dog’s Free At Midnight concert when I played TV On the Radio’s “Golden Age” into Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something.” And even then, I’ll only do something like that maybe once per song pairing, because I hear Prince’s “Kiss” out of Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel” one more time, it won’t be a pretty sight. (Yes, yes, Prince worked with Janelle, the songs are similar, WE GET IT ALREADY!! Next, please.)
Basically, my criterion for a DJ set is simple: I play songs that I think are good. That might mean widely accessible, upbeat ones like Arcade Fire’s “Keep The Car Running” and Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing).” Or it might mean songs that totally test the room’s patience, like a seven minute club mix of Madonna’s “Vogue” into a punishing, dissonant take on Puff Daddy’s “Victory,” remixed by Nine Inch Nails. I’ve totally looked up from the decks at moments like this to a sea of perplexed faces.
But even when I feel like I’m tanking, there’s always that one person (or, in the case of Friday, a dozen or so people) who find me after the set for hi-fives and fist-bumps, which is rewarding. Outside the world of dance club culture, when you DJ, you’re essentially providing background sound to a room of people either drinking or waiting for a band to come on. Knowing that there are people who listen through the background sound to hear what you’re hearing in it makes a DJ feel less alone — which is to say, if you’re out and about and you like what a DJ is playing, let them know.
When I haven’t been spinning vinyl or buying vinyl (shoutouts Brewerytown Beats for an awesome Record Store Day), I’ve been combing through Bandcamp to hear what Philadelphia has been up to this past month and change. Below, you can hear 16 releases from your friends and neighbors that run a wide gamut (not unlike my DJ playlists) from freeform instrumentals and experimental hip-hop, to redemptive jazz, dissonant punk and beyond.
Philly improvised music ensemble Murmuration made their recorded debut last month with Revised Notes, a collection of instrumental sounds exploring a spectrum of emotions and ambience, from nervous tension to breathless repose. The plunking strings on opener “I-676” approximate droplets of rain hitting a dashboard as a motorist sits in a crosstown traffic jam, a great specimen of the group’s ability to use sounds to set scenes. Other selections are less literal. The intense “Event Horizon” recalls George Crumb’s “Black Angels” as performed by Kronos Quartet; bows stab and shriek with ferocity over the course of a minute thirty. The more meditative and melancholy “3 Candles” is a cousin to William Basinski’s 9/11 elegie “Disintigration Loops,” particularly the Wordless Music Orchestra’s performance ten years after the attack. Beyond the moods, the sounds that players Russel Kotcher (violin / piano), Joshua Machis (double bass) and Eric Coyne (cello / piano) create with acoustic instruments is remarkable. “Pink Pink Pink” is percussive without drums, while “Duality” builds and sprints into a dissonant collapse. Recorded at South Philly’s Turtle Studios, these recordings did involve some degree of post-editing and overdubs, but is largely rooted in one-take, in-the-studio improvisation, and is all the more impressive for it.
Philly’s Analog Intelligence Operating System, or A.I.O.S. for short, is the project of one Keith Bowman, who makes meditative electronic instrumentals in the vein of Orbital, Chemical Brothers and others of the big beat era. His EP01 sometimes leans more invigorating (“The Cave Of Gold”), sometimes more ambient, and is almost always peppered with sci-fi samples drenched in echo, for a particularly cosmic effect. According to Bowman’s bio, this is all achieved with a small tabletop setup that includes samplers, drum machines and guitar effects pedals. Bonus points for titling one song “While My Computer Gently Crashes.”
Lower Merion’s Lizzy McAlpine, or simply Lizzy for the purpose of their recent project Indigo, makes soft and sad songs with pure simplicity. On the opening title track, there’s a Julien Baker sense of ambience between resonant sonic space and field-recorded vocal samples interacting with the music. Elsewhere, McAlpine is more focused on songs versus vibe. Tthe jazzy melancholy of “New” recalls Fiona Apple; we hear Beach Boys stacked harmonies on “Honeydew” which, backed by very light acoustic guitar and eventually piano at the conclusion, feels vocal-forward and almost a cappella. And “Daisy” is an ode to unrequited love to tremolo guitar and a lot of room tone, and it is utterly heartbreaking. While many of these songs on Indigo work in this minimalist context, many also feel like they could be sketches for something bigger and bolder, should McAlpine care to make more of a production out of their songs. In either case, it’ll be interesting to see the direction their career takes from here
I’ve followed Philly musician Matthew Ricchini for years — going back to his freak folk-era band The Doctor and Phillip, traversing across his role as drummer in Jeff Zeigler and Mikele Edwards’ krautrock-inspired psych crew Arc In Round, and continuing through his behind-the-scenes work as live sound engineer for touring bands like metal titans Baroness. The Introduction EP by his new solo project Minima Moralia explores another realm of his sonic interests, collecting four songs of dark synth-rock constructed with various Rolands, Korgs and samplers. The vocal songs, like “No Better World,” draw inspiration from 80s Depeche Mode, while the instrumental cuts (“Perfect Is The Enemy Of Good” in particular) delve into the more aggressive territory of industrial and punk, not unlike Philadelphians Crash Course In Science, but with danceable pop sensibilities across the board. It’s never been easy to guess where Ricchini’s musical muse will lead him, but he has clearly found another style he can work with finesse.
Philly singer, rapper, songwriter, beatmaker, guitarist ZiD has been having a busy spring. In March, she released the Duality project, a collaboration with rapper Lupo Asagi that scored philosophical, metaphysical rhymes to otherworldly beats. Equally captivating is the new solo single “Missin’ You,” a beautiful bedroom pop song with an entrancing vocal melody that ZiD dedicates to “the people missing someone, anyone.”
There’s a sense of avant garde playfulness in Sieve’s debut single “Of Course,” reminding me of classic indie oddballs The Raincoats as well as present-day mindbenders Palm. This clearly is a band that’s out there to challenge rock and pop conventionality, but they aren’t being dour about it either. The song — the first from their debut EP Three Secrets — marches to a fervent beat over a minute and 44, and though snyth notes bend and wail, and guitars cut in at jagged intersections, and vocalists Em Boltz and Emily Lyon enter with allusory lyrics delivered in deadpan, it’s an oddly catchy concoction all the same.
Experimental sound artist Natanjah put out two releases in March, one of which was titled Music For Museums. That project is an aggressive collection of dissonant noises, feedback shrieks and sobs of despair edited together in brutal two-minute sound collages. By comparison, the Lion’s Bride EP, also released in March, is tender and introspective — though no less unsettling and otherworldly. Sound collage seems to be Natanjah’s M.O., and on this project, it’s a set of whispered voices fed through delay filters atop instrumental rumblings. Though noises on the title track can be sudden and startling, like a steam whistle blowing its top, the overall feeling of the project is serenity, like we hear in the hallucinatory “Aphrodite,” where Natanjah’s voice falls somewhere between Nina Simone, Laurie Anderson and Bjork. The artist stresses that this project is focused on love songs: “I’ve put into persona many masks and many selves to produce a projection of love’s bounty and failure in everyday life. Dramatic and incomplete is the apparition of moment to moment day life as it meets night life and dream life in between. The sounds come from a meeting and measurement of the psyche of love. A study on what it means to want, and the futile nature of our efforts to find loving complete.”
THE AMPLIFIER FIGHTERS
This rootsy Lancaster rock band has an impressive range on their new LP Cow Dog, rocking out like Being There-era Wilco on “Valentine” and retreating to more soft and sublime tones on “Neck Deep,” an acoustic ballad with e-bow accents that befits their self-identified status as a basement rock band from the Central PA cornfields. To maximize your Dead / Dylan / solo Tweedy vibes, don’t overlook “1964,” with its lyrics about Waylon Jennings eight-track tapes and cans of PBR.
The project of former members of The June Spirit, A Life Once Lost, Desoto Jones and Colors, local four-piece Savage Dads strip back and dial it up from glossy alternative rock to bare-knuckled punk in the vein of Plow United, Spraynard and other luminaries of West Chester. Made up of Ean Kyler on vocals, Garrett Crouse on guitar and vocals, John Sans on guitar, Mike Parise on bass, and T.J. DeBlois on drums, the band’s self-titled debut came out on March 25th, and its eight songs are mostly closer to the two-minute mark than four — punchy, rousing and emotional, they’re reflections life, death, adulthood, and suburbia.
The image on the cover of Philly saxophonist-about-town Korey Riker’s new album immediately gets your attention. Dressed in all black against a yellow background, Riker stares at the camera with his face and ear wrapped in adhesive and gauze, a reed clasped between his teeth, a pensive gaze in his eyes. So, like, did he get in a fight on the way to the studio and have his sax stolen? That’s not the half of it. Riker is a cancer survivor, and as he tells it, “This picture was taken March 25, 2014…after returning home from my 2nd surgery. The melanoma was somewhere between Stage 1 and 2. The doctors wanted to remove the lymph node(s) closest to my ear to find out if the cancer had spread but I didn’t let them due to the risk of ending my career due to nerve damage to my mouth and/or shoulder and arm. It was a scary time. I’m still scared.” The trauma motivated Riker, however, pushing him to tour with John Legend and Melody Gardot, releasing an album and launching a Jazz Composer Residency at the Kimmel Center; the new PTSD Volume 1 collects some of the best performances from that residency. The set finds Riker joined by guitarist Simon Martinez, bassist Jon L. Smith and drummer Lionel Forrester Jr., and rather than taking center stage throughout with his tenor sax — as his solos show he’s fully capable of doing — Riker approaches this live recording in an ego-free way, giving his peers the room to shine alongside him as he courageously makes his way forward.
Following in the footsteps of East Coast slow punks like Clique and Elvis Depressedly, Philly-via-Abington four piece Rover is bright and buoyant while still being downbeat and melancholic. The band — Wyatt Whitney, Paul Burke, Evan Dubrunfaut, Ben Abrams — returns with a solid new two-song single, “Stranger” b/w “Knowing.” While the songs handily capture exhaustion and ennui, there’s a filigree of optimism (possibly the “moooooonbeams” spoken about in the band’s bio) that’s never far from the frame, particularly the shimmering guitar solo on “Knowing” that plays us out.
TRIVIAL is the latest beat tape from Philly’s KAYIN, and like the best of boutique labels Stone’s Throw and Mo’ Wax, it merges jazz, hip-hop and ambient psychedelia. Rhodes organs hum, Wurlitzers wail, voices chatter on indescribably in some distant parallel dimension, and you can feel the little puff of a breeze hitting your face every time the snare drum snaps.
As I’ve griped in the past, chiptune is pretty definitely not my thing. But chiptune-style production minus the video game fixation, plus dub arrangements, sweeping Omnichord accents, and the enchanting voice of Philly’s Jesse Magenta? This I can get into. The Philadelphia singer-songwriter and producer released their latest EP, Life Raft, earlier this month, and it’s a beautiful, playful and ultimately danceable collection of introverted pop in the vein of Mirah, The Blow and I Am the World Trade Center.
Erin Cookman is a folkie as much as a punk rocker as much as a pop singer-songwriter. After getting started in Fort Collins, Colorado in 2013, Cookman moved to Philadelphia and released Medusa, an 11-song manifesto on anxiety, trauma and pain, told through fervent and catchy songs that can fit in any number of categories. The look and attitude throughout feels indebted to the acoustic growls of Mischief Brew and Against Me!, while the polished sheen on songs like the standout “Fallen” are pure Tegan & Sara. Most impressively, Cookman is able to dabble in this stylistic variety like a chameleon without ever coming off posturing or insincere, making her range and eclectic interests work for her rather than against.
John Alsace is the offstage / offline name of Bmbu, a Philadelphia soundscaper and beatmaker who in the past has dabbled in hip-hop and R&B, including production work and collabs with local rapper FortuneWEST. His latest work, Atlantis, takes that vibe and quiets it way, way down, for a delectable set of ambient groove. It’s hard to miss the muted boom-bap rhythms and the wind-up trap beats that carry the project’s eight tracks, but with chiming piano and atmosphric samples, it has more in common with The Album Leaf and early (pre-stadium rock) M83 — the kind of music that’s good for a late-night comedown long after the club has closed.
Drawing inspiration from 90s noisemongers like Mudhoney, The Jesus Lizard and Girls Against Boys, Plot is Philly lads Jake Rhoda, Marcus Eppler, and Cody Brown, and their self-titled full-length debut dropped on April 20th. The set is frenzied and unpredictable, with opening track “Uncertain Times” relying on raw guitar riffs and punk energy, then shifting gears for “Rags to Riches” to incorporate doomy Depeche Mode sythesizers and ominous spoken samples. “Trash Picker” paints a bleak picture of post-industrial, post-capitalist decay; “Bugbite” finds the band teaming up with Mike Polizze of Purling Hiss for crushing fuzz guitar and lyrics about violent entrapment — “it used to be a parachute / now it’s a pair of concrete boots.” Bleak, but hey, it’s a scary and ugly world, and Plot is not here to paint a flattering picture of it.