Tickley Feather [Philadelphia, PA]

In her home town of Philadelphia, Tickley Feather is quite the anomaly. This is not simply because the most prominent band of that town’s indie scene is Man Man, whose sweaty machismo is something akin to Viking chic, and Tickley Feather is the solo work of single mother. Gender helps separate Annie Sachs, the lady who is the music, from the underground mainstream in Philadelphia, but there’s far more to it than that.

Sachs builds her songs with drum machines, samples, and dense layers of keyboards, making them at once murky and iridescent. The songs are strange and beautiful off-kilter bits of thick, distorted synth composition. But what gives the music its body is Sach’s vocals — she has a breathy, urgent delivery that shimmers over the swampy, industrial backdrop and creates an ethereality that mesmerizes the listener.

It’s unsurprising that Tickley Feather’s self-titled debut album is being released on Paw Tracks, the label run by New York experimentalists Animal Collective. The music is unique, which seems more than anything to be that label and that band’s priority. But where Animal Collective sprawl into a jammy, exploratory arena, pushing outward on the borders of traditional song structure, Tickley Feather undermines the norm by pulling those borders in. Her songs are glances at, allusions to, ‘proper’ verse-chorus-verse songs. They feel like snippets of an ongoing soundtrack to a never-ending movie, each one a clip randomly spliced.

Take, for example, “Natural Natural”, one of the most memorable songs off the album. It kicks off with a brief drone, before a drum loop and twist of keyboards enter like clockwork. If there is something stiff in her samples and melodies, it’s cut by her voice. Over a near constant level of musical intensity, her singing injects a dramatic scope over the two minutes. Most of her songs run about this length and, like “Natural Natural”, most of them are lyrically terse and repeat a few words over and over, or reiterate a precise phrasing. Often, the words are evocative or amusing, as in “The Revolution”, with its refrain of “Let’s have a power hour”. The result is a cyclical, mantra-like effect that can be arresting. As the album progresses, one does not so much feel attachment to individual songs as to the eerie feeling evoked by their collection.

“That style has developed out of a lack of skill,” she says without a hint of pandering. “I write music by instinct.” This statement seems indisputable: though nearly every note of her music is recorded with a keyboard, Sachs has never taken a piano lesson. When she got her break, opening a show for Animal Collective at Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church, she says, “I had only played like 12 shows to my friends,” and had no idea how to perform. Sachs is not really a student of music either, and does not refer her sound to other bands. When compared to artists like Gilli Smith or Kate Bush (to whom Sachs bares an oblique resemblance, if any), she claims never to have listened to them before the comparisons started.

Photo by Kimber VanSant

But instinctual does not mean unintentional. Sachs worked tirelessly on her recordings, and with a devotional zeal. Because she is a single parent, she explains, “I found myself in a position where music was the only thing I had for me.” Hearing her talk about the making of Tickley Feather, she can sound almost religious, saying variously, “There is a recording truth”, “The key is to not think about other people”, and “If you don’t know the truth, you just have to wait.” It’s the mentality of a perfectionist, and the album is certainly marked by perfectionism. It shines through in her intricate, unique sound. Sachs’ attributes this to her solitude and introspection. “I’m totally out of the loop,” she laughs, casually ambivalent to ‘the loop’.

Though by other measures Sachs’s music might be considered tough, Tickley Feather has a knack for pop-sensible tunes that, in Philadelphia — a scene that loves its punk and metal — can make her seem nearly porcelain. This is particularly true in her native west Philly. But, while she doesn’t easily fit in musically, she is nonetheless an indisputable member of that community, and her association with this group is another reason that she’s a standout musician in Philadelphia.

West Philadelphia is a part of town renowned for its music scene. It’s rife with house shows, start up bands, and run by a tight-knit coterie that is impressively self-sufficient. But for too long the national stage has practically ignored the West in favor of South. In the mock rivalry between West and South in Philadelphia’s hipster community, Tickley Feather joins a select few in countering the South’s monopoly on national regard, touting bands like Man Man, Dr. Dog, the defunct Need New Body, and the young Extraordinaires. Tickley Feather is an especially welcome break for West Philly’s hardworking community of musicians and promoters, though.

Before she signed to Paw Tracks, Sachs released her music on Badmaster Records, perhaps the most integral label and promoting organization in West Philly. Particularly pleased by Tickley Feather’s ascension should be John Emory, the founder of Badmaster Records, and the man who introduced Sachs to Animal Collective. He and his label, which represents the majority of bands in West Philadelphia and sets up a lion’s share of shows in the neighborhood, can hope to gain more recognition in the wake of Tickley Feather’s success. Though she is anomalous in town, she is not the only good thing going, and a few laurels, even if on its most uncharacteristic member, might provide the juice to turn West Philly into a proper hotbed of independent music.

With the release of such an excellent debut album on such a venerable label, Tickley Feather stands to both bolster her hometown and redefine it. This is exciting news for the West Philadelphia music scene, but it’s also encouraging news for the Philadelphia music scene at large, which should be happy to present a sound and face that break the norm. “I’m happy to do something for the girls,” Sachs says coyly, “to show them what’s possible.” This is as much feminism as Sachs allows herself. Her prominence, however, might itself prompt Philadelphia to withdraw its feet — just a little — from the river of ball sweat in which they soak.