Comfort In The Unknown: The dual paths of Paper Bee and Radiator Hospital - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
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Albums are very often a snapshot. A way for artists to capture a place and time, a moment that, like all others, would drift away if not put to tape in that specific time and place. Sometimes they are the beginning of something, a way to solidify a “band” that’s only existed in anonymous warehouse practice spaces and cramped bedrooms. Sometimes they are a return to something familiar and comfortable, a way to track growth and maturity, a notch in a belt. Radiator Hospital and Paper Bee are two Philly bands with a whole lot in common, including a distinct mutual affection, but their recent snapshots could not look and feel more different. On Friday night at the Ukie Club, each of these bands will present their new records and I couldn’t be more excited.

If you study it closely, the Philly music scene can look like a tangled web of influence and collaboration. Radiator Hospital and Paper Bee find themselves at the center of that web. If you are a consistent reader of this site, you are likely familiar, at least in part, with Radiator Hospital. Primarily the work of singer/songwriter Sam Cook-Parrott, Radiator Hospital have been active for over a decade, releasing several albums of infectious, yearning indie-pop. They are also a constant force within the DIY punk scene, a mainstay and welcome addition to any house show or club concert. That consistency has earned them a devoted, if understated following, the kind that wears their love like an old tattered band tee. You can see that reflected in the music, where Cook-Parrott’s gravelly, cathartic howl and pin-point storytelling make for something both specific and universally inviting.

Paper Bee - Mine

If the joy of a new Radiator Hospital record lies in its familiarity, a phone call from an old friend, then the excitement around Paper Bee is in the unknown. Originally the solo project of songwriter Nick Berger, Paper Bee started to solidify as a proper band months before COVID, putting a stop to any plans of live shows for the time being. Luckily, most of the band members shared a residence, making practice as much a logical way to combat boredom than anything else. “I think that the pandemic kind of forced it to take the shape in a certain way that it wouldn’t have,” says Berger, who wasn’t all that sure they’d ever again release music as Paper Bee. It wasn’t long until the band rounded into form, adding Tony Richards, Cherise Nystrom, Maryn Jones, and Radiator Hospital’s Cook-Parrott, each playing a key role on their new record Thaw, Freeze, Thaw.

Though inextricably intertwined with Radiator Hospital, Paper Bee is very much their own entity, something that becomes obvious when making your way through the excellent Thaw, Freeze, Thaw. Buoyant, delicate, and exposed Thaw, Freeze, Thaw is a collection of songs that swell and quiver, starting one place before ending somewhere completely different, without ever feeling disjointed or forced. The heart of this record lies in vocals, a swirl of voices that starts with Berger but includes Cook-Parrott, Nystrom, and Jones. A song like “Body Of Water” perfectly captures what this kind of practiced unity can produce, beginning as a solo trek through bodily autonomy before spinning into a sonic collage of vocal loops and lilting harmonies. “It is very much like a vocal heavy and vocal forward record,” says Cook-Parrott. “That starts with Nick’s singing, and so it was really easy for us to then just keep building on that.”

Vocals may be what drives much of the content of the record but, as I learn throughout my conversation with Berger and the rest of the band, they are even more essential to the record’s context. For Berger, Thaw, Freeze, Thaw is a very important document of their voice before they began Hormone Replacement Therapy, a process that has significantly changed their vocal range. “I had been considering going on testosterone for the past decade, but every time the question came up, I would just shut it down because my singing voice was too important to me,” says Berger. In 2020, they decided it was finally time, but before that they wanted to fully explore their voice as it was. Unfortunately, this did not include as many live shows as Nick might have hoped so, naturally, he turned toward putting things down on record. “My initial thought was I’ll just do like a bedroom recording but then it just snowballed into the most elaborate recording project I’d done,” says Berger.

Then there’s the fact that most of this record was written and recorded over two years ago, something that does assert itself from time to time now, as Thaw, Freeze, Thaw enters the world. “Every now and then when I listen to them, or when I’m playing them, I’ll have a moment of just being like, Oh, wow, this is a completely different part of my life, and suddenly I’m back in it,” says Berger, who expresses a kind of nostalgic reverence for the band’s de facto debut record. “I feel like there’s like an arc to the record and the period of time that it’s about. It’s nice to have that distance because I wrote a lot of the songs either during or about a really hard moment in my life and I feel a lot more solid in almost every way since then.”

Berger credits this solidity, at least in part, to the connection he’s made with his bandmates. “This is my favorite thing I’ve ever made,” wrote Berger in press material for the record, something that comes across both within the song and in the way he talks about the rest of his band.  “I’ve never worked with a group of musicians that I am this good at communicating and playing together and writing hearts collaboratively,” says Berger. It cannot be overstated how unique it is to find such an arrangement and have it work so seamlessly, especially on a debut record.

Radiator Hospital - Yr Head

For Cook-Parrott, and the rest of Radiator Hospital, the idea of a first record in something far in the rear-view mirror. He’s an old hat, recording music with any number of bands over the years and writing even more, giving him a knowing ease about the whole thing. Unlike his record with Paper Bee, Radiator’s newest work, Can’t Make Any Promises, was recorded some six months ago and was released to fairly little fanfare just last Thursday – even the Thursday rather Friday release feels like a bit of cheeky self-effacement. “I always want to just fucking bang it out, you know? I like working on deadlines,” says Cook-Parrott. Can’t Make Any Promises is pretty certain to satisfy any longtime fans of the band, it’s lo-fi indie equal parts charming and visceral. That’s to say any of it has become stale for Cook-Parrott, the band, or a prospective listener. There is plenty to love here even for a Radiator Hospital novice; “Can’t Stand Myself” with it’s blistering two-minute into, the 90-seconds of hooky punk bliss of album opener “I Can’t Handle It”, the spacey stroll that is “Reason 2 B”. For Cook-Parrott, it’s all about walking this tightrope between the familiar and the novel. “In some ways I feel like I can only write the way that I write, so I try not to be too self conscious about it, but it is fun to sort of break out of what I think it’s supposed to be. I’m always trying to do something different than the last one.”

Though Cook-Parrott will be serving double duty at the Ukie Club, he could not be more excited to showcase both Can’t Make Any Promises and Thaw, Freeze, Thaw, each a wonderful snapshot of an important moment for two of Philly’s best.

Radiator Hospital and Paper Bee play Ukie Club on Friday, June 2 with Yowler and Pinkwash; details and more information can be found at the WXPN Concerts and Events page.

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