Matt Pelham’s cracked-pop project The Features keep gathering momentum, despite severing ties with Murfreesboro-based Spongebath Records. Pelham estimates that he has about “three albums’ worth” of material in the can from his stint with Spongebath, but he doesn’t know what’s going to happen to those recordings. He’s more interested in The Features’ self-released EP The Beginning, which the band recorded during living-room sessions in December 2000 and January 2001 in order to “get something out quick to sell at shows.”
Those shows have been happening more and more frequently away from Middle Tennessee. The band have sold out venues in Knoxville and Atlanta, and have played a couple of dates in Los Angeles in an attempt to generate label interest. Pelham says that the group are ready to make an album, but that they’re waiting primarily “to get the right material together. We’re wanting to hold back on it right now.”
The Beginning is enough for the moment. The 15-minute, five-track disc is a winning, childlike suite about the birth of Pelham’s twins late last year. Opening with the singer watching his kids kick each other on an ultrasound, the EP continues with catchy, open songs that pay tribute to his wife and their instant family, ending with the uplifting love anthem “Two by Two.” The record contains the same sort of DIY psychedelia that was popularized by the Athens, Ga.-based Elephant 6 collective of bands a few years back, but played with more focusPelham’s bash-y blend of guitars, organs, and horns are more clearly arranged, and the melodies and lyrics are more classically accessible.
Pelham has heard the comparisons to Athenians like Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control before, but he swears, “I really don’t know much about it. I know some of the Elephant 6 stuff, but I don’t see it as something we’re a part of.” That’s because The Features’ sound on The Beginning isn’t necessarily what the band have been, or will become. “We have songs that sound more disco or new wave,” he says. “We don’t stick to one vein.”
And the work that the band have done prior to The Beginninglike the power-poppy cuts on their out-of-print eponymous EPhas undergone a change as well. “That stuff was done as a five-piece,” Pelham says. “We’re a four-piece now, and it’s a little different. The music’s still real similar, but the keyboard player has to pick up a lot of slack from where we lost a second guitarist.” He describes The Beginning as “organicbut that may change next time. The next thing we do might have more synthesizers.”
And who knows what kind of Features will show up at Dancin’ in the District this Thursday, July 26, when the band opens for Better Than Ezra?
Brothers Courtney and Carter Little are 28 and 25 years old respectively, and whether as children or as twentysomethings, they’ve spent most of their lives together. The youngest of four siblings, they followed their parents from eastern Tennessee to South Carolina to Chicago, and though they went to separate liberal arts colleges in New England, they reunited in New York City before moving to Nashville one after the other. They say they’ve always listened to the same music, from growing up on The Outlaws and John Prine to becoming obsessed with ’80s college radio staples like R.E.M. and The Smiths while living in Greenville, S.C. Their shared tastes are easily explained: “Twelve years in bunk beds,” Courtney shrugs.
Now Courtney and Carter comprise the core of Saddlesong, a full-bore country-rock band that have been quietly establishing a reputation since their initial experiments at Springwater in 1999. Both brothers have performed solo, starting in New York, where Courtney says there was a lack of appreciation for the sort of pensive, evocative music that he wanted to perform, and where Carter argues that fledgling musicians are “always competing against other industry staples,” like theater and film. Courtney moved to Nashville, hoping to find “a lot of players to play with, and venues to play at”; Carter followed about a year later, in search of “a more reasonable environment to explore songwritinga lot more serenity.”
They’ve mostly found Nashville to be what they wanted, despite a couple of complaints. Courtney acknowledges that “it’s a very hard town to be in if you don’t have any leverage in the music industry.” And he says that some of the dissonance of New York is still present, adding, “Nashville’s one of the only places where you have to choose between three or four acts every night.” Carter notes that most of their friends are in the industry, but says, “[It’s still] hard to get other musicians out to hear your stuff.”
At least they have a built-in audience in each other. Courtney and Carter both write Saddlesong’s material, which the brothers sing in their distinctive voicesCarter in a boyish twang that matches his springy, bluegrass-inspired songs, and Courtney in a hollow, slightly nasal rasp that matches his spacey, stung folk tunes. The two complement each other wellthe sweet and the sourand their mutual talent for integrating acoustic instrumentation with spectral notes of electric slide guitar gives Saddlesong’s story-based compositions a singular personality.
Courtney describes the band project as “a full-on effort to get the tightest sound we can, in the livest format that we can. A lot of what we do is based on harmonies, and a lot of emphasis is placed on phrasing. I guess consciously or unconsciously, we write to the way we sing.” Carter adds, “[We’re] trying to fit a certain predilection, not a certain mode or a certain genre.” It’s a feel they’re going for, not so much a re-creation of traditional folk and country styles.
Saddlesong have a six-song EP floating around, but both Littles stress that the band have developed much in the year since they recorded it. “By the end of the summer,” Carter says, “we’re hoping to have some representation of what this project has become, in the purest, most ‘live’ way that we can.” They’ve yet to determine whether the completed record will be shopped to a label or self-released“It’s just important for us to have the album first,” Courtney insists. And neither will go on record as saying that Saddlesong are any kind of culmination of their individual musical explorations. Carter confesses, “Both Courtney and I have aspirations that go beyond this band, in a lot of respects.”
Until then, they’ll keep drawing strength from the family bloodline. Saddlesong will be appearing live this Friday, July 27 at Radio Cafe, 1313 Woodland St. For information, call 262-1766.
Preparations continue for the October debut of the Nashville New Music Conference. On Thursday night, July 26, the 2NMC makes overtures toward Nashville’s vast, under-examined urban music community with a reception at The End, featuring music by DJ coolout and Murfreesboro rapper Count Bass D. Urban artists and producers will meet with the conference staff and sponsors, and applications for showcase spots at October’s conference will be accepted. Tickets for the meet ’n’ greet are $5. The schmoozing begins at 8 p.m., the music at 9:30.
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