Highnoon | photo by Jordan Curry @brothernas | brothernasphoto.com | via instagram.com/badapplecommune
The Key’s Year-End Mania: John Vettese’s Top Six Philly Music Finds of 2019
Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2019 incredible. To kick off the series, Key editor John Vettese recaps six of his favorite Philadelphia music finds from the past 12 months.
Even when one is immersed in a cultural scene, life sometimes requires a step back. That was me in 2019. I went into it thinking this was going to be a slow year; I was moving to a new home, I spent January through April temporarily living in the suburbs, and I didn’t get out to all that many shows. And yet, a testament to the ridiculously strong music community we’ve developed in this city, I still wound up with a bustling list of Philly artists in December that I was not familiar with back in January. Not bad for spending a full third of the calendar essentially hibernating.
True, I played catch-up big time once I got back into city limits. My new place in West Philly put me closer to literally everything than I’d ever lived before, and the blossoming of springtime gigs gave me many options of places and people to dash around see. I watched new venues come (the fancy new City Winery), I saw beloved venues go (the awesomely gritty Everybody Hits), I encountered some venues that came and went in essentially the same year (love you, Anthorna Gallery, and I hope you’re able to find a new space for your programming beyond Berks Warehouse).
And most importantly, I encountered a bevy of new music-makers, from indie pop to folk to funk and punk. On a self-critical note, I will note that this list is very band-oriented / rock-oriented, and lacking in terms of new Philly hip-hop; most of the MCs and DJs I followed in the in 2019 were ones I knew about going into the year. At the same time, realizing that gives me something to do better about heading into 2020 (The Key’s tenth year covering Philly). And once you take a listen to all these artists, I think you’ll understand why they knocked me sideways. Slow year? Forget that. Let’s explore.
There’s the commonplace critical mass of hundreds of thousands of fans packing a club to see a new artist, and then there’s the critical mass on a micro level where so many of your social media connects are posting about one new release that it gets algorithmed straight to the top of your news feed. That’s how I first encountered Highnoon and their enchanting song “Lens.” One afternoon this July, I tabbed over to Facebook to find that in the time I’d been gone, at least a dozen folks in my friends list — mostly musicians from the DIY community — had shared a just-released Bandcamp link. “I should probably listen to this,” I reasoned, clicking through to press play. Slowly strummed major seventh guitar chords greeted me, joining with a classy bass counterpoint, building to a swift, swinging beat and singer Kennedy Freeman’s suave vocals. It was a bit Stereolab, a bit Electrelane, catchy and fun as hell, and absolutely had me paying attention to Highnoon’s debut record Semi Sweet, which released the following month. Recorded in collaboration with Soft Idiot’s Justin Roth, it boasts classic pop songwriting styles and a cool eclecticism in the vein of Andy Shauf and Bat For Lashes. As a live band opening for Harmony Woods’ album release party, Highnoon proved to be legit as hell, and as an outgrowth of their work in the Bad Apple Commune arts and activism collective, they went on a U.S. tour with Whomst (one of this year’s honorable mentions, see below) in the fall. Of everybody I encountered for the first time this year, Highnoon made far and away the biggest impression — the infectious “Lens” became a staple on my XPN Local playlists, they’re my go-to response when folks ask what Philly music they should check out — and I’m stoked to see where 2020 takes them.
The roots-rock ensemble Stella Ruze has operated in my orbit for a while now — they’ve been a band for five years, and I’ve recognized their name on show bills for at least three of those years. But a hot August afternoon and a packed tent at the Philadelphia Folk Festival was where I truly clicked with them. Stella Ruze played the last on a lineup of showcasing Folksong Society’s Philly Music Co-Op, and when I saw that the seven musicians filing onstage had not only the standard guitar-bass-drums fare, but also sax, trumpet, keys, and mandolin, my curiosity was piqued and I opted to stick around. Good move: the high-energy John Prine cover that they opened the set with totally drew me in, and the original that came later, “Open,” was a rousing singalong with horn fanfare, a swiftly jogging rhythm, and a sense of ebullient uplift. Stella Ruze draws on traditional sounds and styles, for certain — Celtic, bluegrass, New Orleans brass — but they don’t want to play to a room of people sitting in chairs or holding the wall on the perimeter. They want you on your feet, ready to dance, and they give you the energy to do it, singing about life and friendship and community. Their new album, The Greater Dog, is out in February.
The early 80s overlap between post-punk and goth is an absolute sweet spot for me, but I’ve never heard its appeal articulated as perfectly as Florence from West Philly four-piece The Ire put it in this interview with The Key’s Alex Smith: “my favorite element of goth music is the balance of cynical, despairing thoughts by whimsical sounds and lush tones. The ‘only in darkness can there be light’ concept rings true for me and I try to write in a way, musically, that conveys interplay.” We hear that from the pulsing drumbeat and soaring vocals that open their self-titled cassette on “Derelict.” To me, it sounds like The Cure’s soul-stirring Faith and Pornography years; others have likened the band to lesser-known UK trio Skeletal Family, and the band themselves have named Glorious Din as a personal fave, an under-discussed band of the 80s. Whatever your reference points, these are racing, riveting songs about emotional turbulence — “stories of power and powerlessness,” to use The Ire’s tagline, that touch on personal experience, the broader experience of black pain and black struggle, and society at large. The band was a standout at the third annual Break Free Fest, and though their Philly gig itinerary has cooled down since their fall tour, next time you see their name on a show flyer, don’t think twice.
Arthur Thomas and the Funkitorium
This summer I joined Great Time’s Jill Ryan and Philly Music Fest’s Greg Seltzer on the judging panel of World Cafe Live’s Beta Hi-Fi competition, but honestly, the race was over before it really started. Finalists Arthur Thomas and the Funkitorium were the first band to take the stage, decked out in stylish coordinated outfits and boasting an irresistible charisma (between one another as bandmates, and between themselves and the audience). “Butterfly Loco” had an earworm melody, a playful air, a beat that begged you to get down, and a wordless chorus you could sing along to even if it was your first time hearing the song. The crowd packed the front, responding appropriately, and however the rest of their set went, the bar was set ridiculously high. The Funkitorium wound up winning the competition, as well as its grand prize, an opening slot on PMF. The band also joined us in the studio that fall for an equally impressive Key Session; with musical nods to James Brown as much as Anderson .Paak, band leader Arthur Thomas and hype man RE-MUS tap into funk and rock sounds that are both classic and contemporary. And though their studio-recorded output is a little thin at present, we’re hoping to see that change in 2020. In the meantime, Arthur Thomas and The Funkitorium shine on the stage, and your next chance to see them do that is at the Lounge at World Cafe Live on December 27th for a tribute to Parliament / Funkadelic.
Central Pennsylvania can be an amazing musical incubator, a space for musicians to learn their craft and develop their sound, discover their identity before presenting it to fast-paced gig circuit in Philly, or New York, or points west. As we saw this year with Vicious Blossom, the project of Lancaster songwriter-guitarist Nate Zerbe, that works doubly well when your style of choice is one that is at its strongest in a slow-burn setting. Zerbe is an aficionado of shoegaze, particularly its initial wave in the late 80s and early 90s, and his attention to detail in creating immersive tone-worlds on his moving debut LP Solace has gotten the project attention from some of his heroes — like Slowdive, whose drummer Simon Scott remixed the song “Sway” this fall. The album is filled with emotional songs about personal struggles, from mental health to addition, but also positions itself as a beacon through the fog. Though some Vicious Blossom live sets popped up on the 2019 calendar, Zerbe is already working on a follow-up to Solace, with a 2020 release in his sights.
With the punch and panache of generations of progenitors, from Green Day’s first three albums all the way up through present-day barn-burners PUP, Philly four-piece Trash Boy makes feverish, frenzied rock songs that will have you slam dancing, pumping your fists, and contemplating the human condition. But their 2019 sophomore album Who Will Take the Trash Out When We’re Gone focuses on uniquely specific elements of that condition: our material desires, our struggles with empathy, the self-conscious surfaces of our personalities, and the way all are fueled by capitalism. It’s fierce and fired up, with Nolee Morris’ drumming hammering the way, but the band and their record are far from being a self-righteous screed. Firstly, Trash Boy makes diatribes incredible fun (“Perfect Teeth” being exhibit A). Second, they prefer to look less at an evil societal structure, and more the way society affects the individual, and don’t leave themselves exempt from criticism. Taut, true to life, and one of the best live shows in the city right now.
Honorable Mentions: The otherworldly dream-pop of Hermit High Priestess, the meditative atmospheres of Whomst, the riveting noise-punk of Drill, the cathartic emo of Sweet Pill, the radiant psychedelia of Pouring Silver, the impressionistic art rock of Static Shapes.