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.
One glorious day some years back, a teenage high school dropout Nikki Lane (née Nicole Lane Frady) packed a trailer with her worldly possessions. With one hand firmly gripping a steering wheel and the other flipping the bird, she said so long to her home, Greenville, South Carolina, The South and any sort of life it had suggested she should live. Western bound, she was headed to Los Angeles for no other reason than just because.
"You grow up in The South, you grow up in a small town, your expectations are a little bit limited," she says now. "People expect you to go to a four-year college, get married and follow that Southern way of life. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do but I knew it wasn't being offered to me."
And so Lane settled in L.A. Without clear direction, she worked various day-to-day jobs and dabbled in fashion, getting shoes manufactured in China and painting them to sell under the Nikki Lane moniker. Five years passed and she started writing music but forsook that path after just two promising shows for a corporate job offer across the country in New York City.
"I'd always wanted to live in New York and somehow ended up talking my way into a really well paying job," she says. "That was an opportunity I couldn't say no to. And so I moved and for a year didn't even touch music. It was like something I'd just tried once. I'd written a couple songs and that was the end of it."
But like any good country singer, heartbreak brought her back to music when her boyfriend left her to record an album in Atlanta. "I was like, fuck that," she says, "Why does he get to make a record in Atlanta while I'm sitting in New York crying? So I just sat down with a guitar, I didn't have anything going on, I didn't have many friends in the city that weren't his friends, it's freezing in New York and I'd quit my job, so basically for three months I holed up in this apartment and I just wrote."
She started learning Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, John Prine and Merle Haggard tunes, the sort of classic country songs that have steeped her own writing now, trying her best to strum along and building her confidence along the way. "And all of a sudden it hit me and I started writing like crazy," she says, "I wrote a whole album in a month's time and just decided I was going to make a record in Nashville. It was like my revenge record."
Empowered, in February, 2009, Nikki went to Nashville, recorded an album she self-released titled "No Room for Cowboys", and returned to New York a musician. That's essentially where IAMSOUND found her. Impressed with her bold vocal chops and wildly infectious personality, the flourishing indie label signed her, Nikki moved to Nashville and started flying in and out of Los Angeles to write and record with producers David Cobb (Shooter Jennings, The Secret Sisters) and Lewis Pesacov of Fool's Gold. The first result of these efforts is a four-song EP titled Gone, Gone, Gone after the opening track, a forceful farewell to The South. Says Lane, “We sat down and wanted to write something about leaving a place and being like, you'll be fine, I’m not coming back.”
They're all stories,” she continues. “That’s the only way I know how to write. All my songs have a beginning middle and an end. I want to tell you what happened to this person and what the result was.”
As if Lane’s history weren’t enough evidence of her well-proven knack for leaving, on her arm rests a tattoo that reads, “Wanderlust calls again.” “I feel like everyday I might be better off if I could get up and go,” she says. “I've had a really hard time staying put because the different scenery is what's inspiring.”
Throughout her contemporary classic country ballads she plays the rambler and sometimes drunkard with such an ardent aptitude she’d fit right in alongside those icons in whose songs she was able to find her own voice.
Lane now lives in Nashville where she also owns and operates a vintage boutique called High Class Hillbilly, selling pieces she has collected while touring the country.