Wed, Oct. 31st, 2012
The Features present: A Gala of Goblins and Ghouls
with Heypenny, Tristen & The Goldroom
The Cannery Ballroom
Two weeks. That's how long The Features had to work up roughly a dozen new tunes before they traveled some 2500 miles from their native Tennessee to Vancouver, Washington to make their new album "The Features" (Serpents and Snakes/BMG). There, the Nashville-based band spent a month crafting the most inventive and assured album of their career.
But when the four members first set up shop in the cabin-esque confines of Ripcord Studio, what they'd come out of there with was anybody's guess."A lot of it seemed pretty spontaneous," says the band's frontman, Matthew Pelham. "Because we didn't solidify anything, really, in those two weeks of practicing. So when we got there, there were a lot of loose ends to tie up."
It wasn't just a bold move, but a dramatic change of pace for a band that’s been praised as one of best live rock combos around. Over the years, they've served up slice after slice of hook-fueled brilliance - with subtle nods to new wave, '60s garage, southern rock, Krautrock and beyond - and perfected them over the course of countless shows and constant retooling in their practice space.
Capturing their thrilling, stage-tested sound was a no-brainer on previous albums. But for "The Features," Pelham and his bandmates - keyboardist Mark Bond, bassist Roger Dabbs and drummer Rollum Haas - were game to shake things up. Just two months away from the release of their hailed 2011 album "Wilderness," they decided that they weren't going to wait another two or three years to start work on the follow-up. They'd make it in the two months they had to spare.
That meant that almost none of the songs pegged for "The Features" had been performed in front of an audience - and several were still works-in-progress when the band arrived in Vancouver. "I don't think we really had any expectations," Pelham says. "We just thought, 'Let's do it differently.’"
From their first night in town - when they loaded into the studio and immediately started firming up the song they were set to track the next day - the band didn't flinch at the task at hand. With no time for second-guessing, they embraced a slew of previously untapped sonics and styles, resulting in their most adventurous set of songs yet.
Lead-off cut "Rotten" is a bold, multi-movement stunner, veering from serene synth-pop to proto-metal riffs, flirting with anthemic "Who's Next" arena-rock before shrinking back to its starting point. "This Disorder" - an instant classic in The Features' esteemed catalog - throbs with a tense funk pulse, jagged guitar swipes and staccato synth lines, as Pelham's tightly wound vocal offers words of caution in the scatterbrained smartphone age. "New Romantic" and "Ain't No Wonder" similarly straddle the line between classic new wave and Bowie-styled soul. But the album is thoroughly modern, too, particularly in the wide-open spaces of shimmering rockers "With Every Beat" and "In Your Arms."
Add it all up, and "The Features" is the sound of a band that's wholly comfortable with where they are - and know exactly where they want to head next.
Though known mostly for country music royalty—the likes of Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash—Nashville has a flourishing indie-rock scene that along with the neighborhood streets, the hills, and woods—make a perfect place for Heypenny to create their world of indie-pop-fun-rock.
Four years ago, Ben Elkins lived about 150 miles south of Nashville in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He experimented with sounds and spaces and new ways of writing songs. Through these efforts, Heypenny was born and an album called Use These Spoons was completed and Elkins relocated to Nashville, TN, recruiting DJ Murphy on bass and Aaron Distler on drums.
Although it was never fully distributed, Use These Spoons made waves in the blogosphere and garnered accolades throughout the region/country/Western hemisphere for its pop-infused balance of rhythm, harmony, and DIY brilliance, ultimately selling out of all their pressings.
What started out as a quiet, solitary and patient endeavor has over the last year erupted into a staccato-rock band that finds company with contemporaries, while channeling the pop-appeal of Michael Jackson, and the naiveté of Sesame Street.
Fresh off a stint opening for pop superstar, Ke$ha, playing for 2000+ at the Florida Music Festival, playing Bonnaroo in 2009 and headlinging Next Big Nashville for a capacity crowd, the band has honed and perfected their craft, rapidly building their profile and fanbase, inking them as a must see live show.
Whether they are pushing through capacity crowds with marching bands in tow, having artists paint 8′x5′ renderings of the pages from their CopCar Coloring Book EP during their show, or playing a surprise set in the middle of the crowd with an upright piano, string quartet and horn section, blanketing the audience in a hundred feet of white Christmas lights, it’s no secret that they think big and deliver.
It’s the attention to detail—custom, hand-made marching band uniforms to the old-fashioned, big-knobbed, wood-paneled television sets that bathe the audience in abstract colors, flashing and pulsing with the songs—that gives the audience an actual show.
Graham Hawthorne, drummer for David Byrne emailed the band after their Bonnaroo performance and said that he happily stumbled onto the set and that it was perhaps “the best thing he saw at the festival.” It’s little things like that, going in as the underdog and winning the hearts, minds and ears of strangers that keeps them going and make them pour everything they have into perfecting their craft and giving their fans something memorable.
Heypenny recently finished up their follow-up to Use These Spoons titled A Jillion Kicks. AJK was released on February 22, 2011 to rave reviews from fans and critics alike. You can find the band touring in a city near you as these relentless road dogs never stop.
“If someone says, ‘That’s a trite, pop chord progression that everybody uses and it always sounds cheesy, then I want to try and use that, and make it sound good,” Tristen says. It’s that kind of contrarian spirit and confident moxie that makes the Nashville-based singer-songwriter stand head and shoulders above her Music City peers.
Nashville-based? Singer-songwriter? … Goes by her first name? Do those terms fill your head with expectations of a precious, pint-sized female crooning middle-of-the-road pop with a precious tear-in-beer twang? Well, don’t let them. Because, beyond Tristen’s sharp-witted lyrical savvy and sophisticated song-craft, her innate ability to defy expectations will leave you hanging on her every note, even in Nashville.
“I’m not from here,” she says of the city she migrated to in 2007. “We didn’t wear so many dresses where I came from,” she goes on, explaining how she pulls much inspiration from the blue-collar suburb south of Chicago where she grew up. “When you have to struggle for everything that you have, when you actually start getting opportunities, you’re going to make sure to be completely prepared for them.”
How the singer immersed herself in Nashville, building up her chops and experimenting with ideas in a competitive incubator of exceptional musicians and songwriters, while waiting tables and living hand to mouth to tour on a shoestring budget shaped the songs and sounds on her earthy, acclaimed 2011 debut, Charlatans at the Garden Gate. But if Charlatans was the story of Tristen finding her voice in Nashville, the singer’s stunning new album CAVES is the sound of her defining that voice for the world, and setting it to some sleek, synth-pop-inspired tones, once again defying expectations.
In much the same way, “Forgiveness,” off the album, is hardly a song about forgiveness. “That’s my ‘angry girl’ song,” she jokes, explaining that the song was actually inspired by an interview she heard with punk rocker/ writer/ pundit and pillar of male aggression, Henry Rollins, in which he says he forgives his dad by not finding him and beating him in the face with a hammer.
Not all of the songs on CAVES are as openly confrontational as “Forgiveness.” Relentlessly infectious opening track “No One’s Gonna Know” — which sounds like Kim Carnes taking on latter-day Leonard Cohen — is about gangsters. “Monster” is a menacing, minor-tinged stomper about having multiple personalities. By contrast, the gorgeous, lulling “Island Dream” plays like a spacey, sonic mini movie about existential dread and “searching for answers and not getting any.”
There are break-up songs on the album, too, like “Easy Out” and “Catalyst.” While songs like “House of War” and “Dark Matter” are sociological critiques about “being a terrible American,” she says. “Winter Night” — the album’s moody, resplendent centerpiece — was inspired by the Boris Pasternak poem of the same name.
Although, lyrically, CAVES covers a wide breadth of thematic territory, the album is unified by an aesthetic concept: She wanted to make a synth-pop record that combinedCharlatans’ rootsy foundation by casting objects of obsessive Reagan-era influences like Kate Bush, Eurythmics and Echo and the Bunnymen in her own singular image.
“At first I wanted to make a dance record,” she says. “That’s where my headspace was. … I wanted to challenge the acoustic reverence of the Americana music world and I wanted to piss off the old folkies. Is there something wrong with that?”
Looking into Tristen’s backstory, it’s a musical Frankenstein that makes sense. “[Growing up] I had a Dolly Parton greatest hits album that I listened to on repeat,” she recalls. “That and Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, I always loved Madonna. And that’s actually why I wanted to be just ‘Tristen,’ because I picked that up when I was 14 — [that’s when] I started writing songs.”
Later, much in the same away, she says a childhood obsession with ’60s girl-group pop and the Beatles would blossom into an adult obsession with classic singer-songwriter troubadours and legendary art-rock pioneers. “I would want to be an amalgam of Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Dolly Parton,” she says.
With a stellar set of songs locked and loaded for CAVES, the singer tapped luminaries from both ends of that musical spectrum to achieve a very specific goal. “I wanted to mix synthesizers with string arrangements and electronic drums with live drums so that you couldn’t tell which was which — I wanted people that were anti-digital to listen to it and not be able judge its authenticity by its acoustics,” she explains.
So, after tracking the record in Nashville with guitarist/husband Buddy Hughen and a hand-picked host of A-list Nashville indie-rock session vets, like Ben Folds drummer Sam Smith, she took the tracks to Bright Eyes producer Mike Mogis, who recorded Tristen’s own lush string arrangements at his ARC Recording Studios in Omaha, Nebraska. And to achieve an authentic synth-pop sheen, she enlisted famed New Order, Pet Shop Boys and OMD producer Stephen Hague, a pioneer in the field of digital recording to mix. “That was a game-changer,” she says. “Stephen gave the recordings dimension.”
“Tristen is a rare combination,” says Hague. “The lyrics of a real artist, the voice of a pop star, and the focus of someone who will always bring her A-game. It was a real pleasure for me working with someone who always has her eye on the bigger picture, and is always willing to try different approaches to the work.”
Tristen is releasing CAVES on October 15 on her own PUPsnake records via ThirtyTigers.
You guys are pretty solid.