(Serpents and Snakes)
US: 5 Jun 2012
Some bands come and go in a nanosecond, never getting beyond the middling-results of a debut album they spent their whole lives writing, that no one wants to listen to. And there’re bands like The Features – a bunch of guys who’ve spent their whole lives writing half a dozen albums that no one, seemingly, wants to listen to.
Actually, that’s probably a tad harsh. After all, being signed to the Kings Of Leon-founded label Serpents & Snakes means the stars at least rate them. And “Lions” – their 2009 mini-hit and parent album Some Kind Of Salvation did make small waves in the UK and some parts of the US.
So why have things not taken off for The Features? Three albums (five, if you include the never-released efforts from their early days) in, endorsement by the Followills and a respectful nod from the British music press doesn’t mean you’re destined for greatness – but neither should it suggest your career will be blighted by obscurity. However, on Wilderness, it’s not in what they’re creating here – more the tools they use to do the job.
Let’s take the aforementioned hit from a few years back, “Lions”. It’s built on a sub-frame of “oh-oh-oh” harmonies, a yearning, earnest but sneakily tongue-in-cheek vocal – and a rousing, pounding beat. The fact that singer Matt Pelham’s voice starts to grate shortly before the outro is overlooked thanks to the song’s unassuming kookiness.
Now, compare that to a couple of the prime cuts from Wilderness, “Another One” and “How It Starts”. The former is an exercise in trying to sing as understated as possible. Whilst the vocals are pared down, Wilderness is an album that strains under the weight of a band trying too hard to pack a punch, to deliver a hooky chorus, to sing and play with real meaning. Subsequently, in a forced effort to be understated “Another One”‘s vocals end up sounded strained anyway. Before long, the song feels like it’s lost its way a little.
“How It Starts” sees a determined beat underpin vocals that are far more earnest than those on “Lions” – at times Pelham must be straining so hard he’s at risk of giving himself a hernia. The kookiness gone, this sounds like a band now completely aware of themselves.
As things progress, Wilderness flits from tracks that fall slightly short of being a convincing tune, to frankly baffling moments that don’t do those vocals any favours at all. “Golden Comb” and “Fats Domino” are irrevocably dull alt-rock with rudimentary lyrics and nowhere to go. And with a swirling organ, an over-blown chorus and knock-about lines, “Big Mama Gonna Whip Us Good” tries far too hard at being tongue-in-cheek, but ends up more egg on face. The Fratellis did this sort of thing, but they did it better.
The best thing here is “Rambo” – from the humming monks on the intro to the haunting, swirling and wonderfully skyscraping choruses. In those expanses between Pelham’s lines it feels like a breath of fresh air. But it’s just a taste of what The Features could be – what we really need is a full meal.
“Is this the beginning / Or is this the end?”, asks album opener “Content”. Well – it’s highly likely that The Features will spend another ten or fifteen years banging out middling alt rock fodder. So it’s probably neither. As long as someone’s listening, chances are they’ll still be with us.