Everything about The Features seems perfectly calibrated to sneak up on you. Their new album--self-titled--is packed with different ideas and sounds, but it's not a debut; it's their fourth full-length. They're still building a national audience, but they're not new to touring; they were attracting local buzz in their native Tennessee 15 years ago.
The vagaries of the music industry haven't been kind to The Features. One album never really came out; another only got distribution after they'd toured on it for a year already. "It seems like every record of ours we're almost starting over again," frontman Matt Pelham says.
Nearly a decade after their ill-fated major label debut, though, they've achieved what looks like continuity: The Features have finally released their first second album. It's been complicated.
The Features is just their fourth LP, but in an important way, it's their first: It's the first time they've released two albums back to back, without an unplanned hiatus in between. "We do have just a little bit of momentum, it seems," Pelham says, on the phone from their first stop of the tour, in Colorado Springs. "It's nice."
But even that little bit of momentum took years of planning: The Features has been finished since just before Wilderness, their third album, was released in 2011. "We'd recorded our third record and wanted to have another record ready to go, so that when we were finished touring with Wilderness we could immediately release one, and kind of get caught up to where we thought we should be."
The payoff wasn't until this past May, when it finally came out--on schedule, for once. Recording two albums in a row might seem like an overreaction, but after listening to Pelham's story it almost seems like the only reasonable reaction.
"Just before we went in to record the second album we got dropped from the label"--that's Universal, who signed them for 2004's Exhibit A. All of them had day-jobs, at that point, and without label support progress on their follow-up slowed to a crawl. "We spent a year on it, but the year we spent could have been consolidated down to two weeks. It would be an hour one night, and then two-and-a-half hours the next night, and that would be all we'd get to record the entire week."
Exit: Momentum. When Some Kind of Salvation finally came out in 2008 it was self-released; by the time it had attracted a label's attention they'd already toured on it for a year, which made for another jarring experience.
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"It does get frustrating sometimes," he says. "We're not, like, young dudes. I don't feel like there are many bands out there our age who've toured in a 15-passenger van together for 15 years, and shared one room every night on tour... We're all in our mid-30s. We have wives, and kids... I think that's what gets frustrating, just wanting a little more space from time to time."
Recording The Features so quickly may qualify as desperate measures, then, but they'd had experience enough with desperate times. But here's where The Features sneak up on you again: With less time than they've ever had before between records, they've turned in their least predictable album yet.
"We didn't spent much time preparing for it," thanks to that compressed schedule, "which was kind of nice. In the past we've played songs for a couple of years live before we actually recorded them. It was kind of nice to not do that with this record, to just go into the studio and have some loose ideas and work them up on the spot."
The result, strangely, was an album that sounds both looser and more complete than the others. Some bands seek spontaneity in garage-rock; The Features found it closer to the basement, uncovering a sound that's wrapped in hazy synths and flirts (especially on album-closer "Phase Too") with new wave.
The swirling rhythms aren't a departure, but the balance is. "I quit playing guitar as much on this record, and kind of let Mark [Bond, keyboardist] take up more space sonically than he had in the past. And we did the same with the drums, and the bass... we tried to put more emphasis on the depth of what was going on, and take it away a little from being a straight-up rock band.
"I've always really liked artists like Tom Petty, who write really good, simple songs," Pelham says. "It doesn't matter what type of person you are, or how old you are, it's really easy to like Tom Petty. To me there's something to that." He doesn't think The Features have gotten there yet, but The Features is a definite step toward it.
What they've gained, in the meantime, is a chance to lay down a foundation and build on it--and Pelham isn't taking it for granted. "This is the first record where I feel like everything lined up as it should, as far as press, distribution, the record actually coming out, a video... Wilderness wasn't put in stores. You couldn't really get it unless you saw us live. The ducks were never in a row."
Now that they are, Pelham and The Features are hoping to finally take a few consecutive steps forward, big or small. "If we could get to that point... where we could tour and maybe get two rooms, so that each person could have their own bed. I think that would be a very nice step for The Features."
After that, maybe they can start thinking about their first third album.
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The Features are scheduled to perform Thursday, September 12, at Last Exit Live.