Joey Sweeney seems to be living a Freaky Friday scenario with his parents. Long known as a purveyor of Philly-centric snark via his Philebrity blog, Sweeney has spent the last few years living in Society Hill where, he says, "Everyone is old and no one is cool."
His parents, meanwhile, have remained in his native Fishtown as the neighborhood has gentrified around them — a change, he says, that the elder Sweeneys have fully embraced. "They love it," he shrugs. "I can't see it the way the new people see it, and I was never down with the old crew, either. But my mom really likes all the new neighbors, and my father is having this whole renaissance. He hangs out at the coffee shop and goes to the Record Exchange, and he's growing his hair long."
Philebrity has been dormant since January ("Every day I think, 'Is today the day I'm going to start posting again?' "), but Sweeney has found another outlet for his love/hate observations of the city he's always called home. On Friday night, Sweeney and his latest band, the Neon Grease, will celebrate the release of his latest album, Catholic School, at Everybody Hits. The songs are linked by a loose theme of growing up in an ever-changing city that could apply to any American metropolis, though it is rich in details specific to Sweeney's native Philly.
"It was my job to write about the city every day for over a decade," Sweeney says. Though his previous releases as the Trouble with Sweeney were more personal, singer-songwriter efforts, Catholic School gave vent to his acid-tinged journalistic impulses. "All that muscle memory of writing about the city applied itself. It came together somewhat subconsciously."
The album allows Sweeney to do more than complain about Philly. The release is a joint venture between Burnt Toast Vinyl and the Giving Groove, a recently launched label whose releases all feature a charitable component. Half of all profits from album sales go to a music-related charity of the artist's choice — in Sweeney's case Rock to the Future, a nonprofit organization that provides music education for Philadelphia's underserved youth.
"I'm old enough and have been in enough bands to know that if you are looking for a big financial return on your very personal indie rock record, you're barking up the wrong tree," Sweeney says. "So if you can sidestep your hopes of recouping your money and put in its place the notion of being able to do something good and raise awareness — amazing."
The Giving Groove was cofounded by Sine Studios owners Matt Teacher and Mike Lawson and has released music by the Dead Milkmen, Hoots & Hellmouth, and OOLALA, among others. Inspiration came from Teacher's parents, who ran a cookbook publishing company with a similar charitable component.
"Working on records in the studio, we saw so many artists putting so much time and heart and money into creating their art just to see it not go anywhere in the end," Teacher says. So it was important for us to be able to help the artists, but it was also important for us to enable the artists to give back. The music industry doesn't have the best reputation, so we wanted to do something that focused on good works."
Catholic School is nostalgic in more ways than one, charting the singer-songwriter's uneasy relationship with the new face of Philadelphia over sax-driven, dad-rock grooves. The album was produced by Ray Ketchem, drummer of the New York art-pop band Elk City. Sweeney admits that as the songs came together in the studio, the throwback sound didn't always meet with Ketchem's immediate approval. "Ray comes from the same background as I do: tried-and-true '90s indie rock," Sweeney says.
"There was a point where he was clutching his pearls a little bit. It was totally anathema; we were asking him to pull up John Cougar Mellencamp's Scarecrow to reference the snare drum. So many of the bands that he records come in and say, 'We want to make it sound like a band in a room.' We did not want it to sound like a band in a room. We wanted it to sound like a band inside an old TV."
That approach ends up giving the songs just the right mix of grit and gloss, like new construction butting up against old rowhouses and corner stores. It's the perfect fit for songs like "On Monday," which Sweeney calls "the first cathartic rock-and-roll song about New Philadelphia."
"On Monday / The bougies give the city back," Sweeney sings. Later, he grudgingly declares, "The city is a covenant / This much at least the gangsters understood when they were running it."
Not that Sweeney is idealizing the city of his youth, mind you. "The Philly I grew up in was irretrievably broken," he admits, "and in fact set the stage for anything that's going wrong now. So it's not a blame-the-new-people thing, but New Philadelphia feels really cosmetic and a little bit ahistorical, and that feels dangerous and weird to me."
Joey Sweeney & The Neon Grease