In 2003, the Features got their break when UK label Fierce Panda released their EP The Beginning. Early this year, the disc finally got stateside release with a bonus track. The six tracks on that release showed a band full of energy, aggressive, and just a little strange. Those elements usually make for a good mix, and it was no different with the Features. Their hooks made them catchy, and their quirks made them distinctive. It's only been half a year, but the group is back with a full-length, Exhibit A (these guys are nothing if not literal in their CD titles). When the Features stick to the formula that worked so well on the EP, they're as hot as it gets, but when the clean things up and hide their weirdness, they're just another throwback band that's fun but nothing special. The scales tip slightly in the band's favor, but not enough.
When the album opens, it sounds like we're in for another success. "Exhibit A" has a nice mix of distorted guitar and retro organ, giving the band a '60s-garage edge without letting them sound too derivative. The Features come across like a Tennessee version of the Coral, but without the genre exploration. Vocalist Matt Pelham sounds, as he does throughout the disc, like he's just on the edge. He's the guy always about to do something crazy, but never quite bursting through. The group keeps this edge on for three songs, peaking with the psychedlic "Me & the Skirts", in which the drums provide nice fills among a groovy bassline. The organ throws out its best little lines of the album, and the Features have the perfect club sound down pat. And then they lose it.
On "Blow It Out", the band sounds too polished. This song gives a major nod to AOR radio in what sounds like an attempt at a commercial hit. It's a frustrating artistic decision, but it also seems like a poor commercial choice when the group should be leaning more toward recent critical successes Franz Ferdinand or the Zutons. Pelham's voice undergoes a change, too, as he drifts into Adam Duritz territory, which is a bad fit for the music that these guys produce so recklessly most of the time. Almost as if the band read my mind, their next track and first single "There's a Million Ways to Sing the Blues" is a Franzian dance-rock number that shows the Features' disco influences. The track lacks the oddness and assertiveness of the group's best numbers, but it is a step up from "Blow It Out", helping to keep the album exciting.
The rest of the album proceeds with a similar pattern: few oddball songs that could be updates on the Zombies and a few interruptions from bland, radio-friendly material. It's frustrating to listen to a band that rages against demons in one song ("Exorcising Demons", of course) stumble into formulaic rock on another. The album's greatest lyrical twist actually plays off this tension beautifully. The downtempo, clubbish "The Idea of Growing Old" examines the title concept in a positive notion. Pelham sings to a lover who makes him feel good about growing old. He's pleased that they "can settle down for an afternoon nap". It might sound cheesy, but there's no hint of treacle or cliche in the Features' delivery. The band restrains itself without losing energy and the honest expression in a chaotic album strikes forcefully. Then they stumble into a vacant song about never letting someone down that's as musically dry as its lyrics.
The Features too often stray away from the idiosyncracies that made their first release so intriguing. Fans of The Beginning might be disappointed in the lack of uniqueness, but they shouldn't be dissatisfied in with the album as a whole. The band falters at times, but they never stay down. Exhibit A should be used as evidence in the defense of their original sound, and as a source of hope for the rest of us that they stick with it.