The Features are a rollicking indie-pop quartet from Sparta, Tennessee, with a melodic, slightly cluttered keyb-guitar sound that evokes [insert grab-bag of similes here]. In 1997, they released an eponymous EP on Spongebath Records that prompted unhelpful comparisons to the Rentals, the Jam, the Kinks, and Elvis Costello. Soon thereafter, singer/guitarist/auteur Matthew Pelham’s wife Terri gave birth to twin daughters, Edith and Mabel. The Features went immediately into the studio and recorded some songs about giving birth to twins. The resulting EP was self-released (read Jason Thompson’s original PopMatters review here), but their relentless gigging at industry showcases (along with the tireless promotion of their manager, Rory Daigle) eventually led to their signing with Universal Records last summer. Their first release on the mega-label is the very same previously-available-only-at-gigs The Beginning EP, with reshuffled track listing and new stork-oriented cover art.
And what a wonderful EP this is! Matthew Pelham seems consumed by a bizarre giddiness and retrospection when he caught wind that the stork was weighted down with twins, and every song either rushes cheerily over the cliff, or speed-blossoms like a stop-motion orchid. Plus he’s intuitively lifted up by his collaborators: the garage keyboards of Parrish Yaw, darty bass-riffing by Rollum Haas, and (especially) the slap-happy drums of Roger Dabbs. This is a joyous, springtime release, and I bet Universal waited till March for the big rollout simply because it wouldn’t sound so great under wintry conditions.
The EP kicks out with “The Beginning (Week One)”, an onslaught of frat-rock organ, Keith-Moon drums, and Pelham’s warbly shout. “I’ve got to figure out just what this means and what to do!” You can feel him walking on air and grabbing his guts, giddy with new love, blind to the prospect of procreation and babies. This must be the moment he met Terri, and you almost want to fall in love with her too. A perfect random-ecstasy garage tune.
Given the plot development so far, you can almost predict how the next song, “Walk You Home”, develops. Similarly cacophonous, it has a nice theme of isolation-in-crowds (song begins at a parade, then proceeds to a party, and Pelham’s clearly focused on Terri in both scenes), and a bizarre simulation of parade music (I think). But this is where the “falling in love” happens. Says so in the lyrics, almost…
The next two tunes are centerpieces of the EP, melodic showcases for Pelham’s talent. “Bumblebee”, despite the incoherent metaphor that provides the title, is hooked on a pastoral sweetness that’s reminiscent of (yes) “Waterloo Sunset”-era Kinks. Here’s where we first see the “stark white stork approaching”, innocence lost, hard work ahead. “Bumblebee” segues into “Two by Two”, where the twins are born. It features a theme that’s rarely broached in the indie-rock context: nurturing the pregnant Muse while pursuing a music career. Oddly, there are lots of platitudes here (“When you call my name, I’ll be right there”, “We can work it out”, “Holding on to your love / Holding on to my dream.”), but the semi-AOR soundscape is very groovy, and possibly intentional. I think Pelham is very serious when he lays out the bromides too: the thin trebly guitar hook proves it. A great one. Reminds me of Donnie Iris a little bit.
Ninety seconds of folky sweetness (“Stark White Stork Approaching”) gives us a brief intermission before the anthemic final track, “The Way It’s Meant to Be”. Complete with buzzsaw guitar, Stooge-style handclaps, and a lead singer drenched in sweat, this song is woozy with love for Pelham’s curious new babies, Edith and Mabel, and the band rocks out to prove it. “Gonna tuck you in tonight / Fall asleep right by your side / Take a swift kick in the head / Let you push me out of bed…” It’s all shouting and unfettered joy, a fatherhood track as epic and beautiful as Spoon’s “Me and the Bean”. Fact is, you should buy the EP for that song alone…
Who cares if it’s on Universal? It’s a great concept EP, and if you’re a new indie-rock dad like that dude on the sitcom Rock Me Baby, you’ll especially dig it.
Me, I love it because it feels like springtime and falling in love. Strongly recommended.
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