The Features, Wilderness

The Features, Wilderness

Okay, so it makes perfect sense when you know the history. Back in 2009, now-icons Kings of Leon started up their own label, Serpents & Snakes, with the intention of releasing music by bands they themselves liked and wanted to give more exposure. Their first signing was fellow Tennessee-dwellers The Features, whose self-released second album Some Kind Of Salvation was the label’s first release.

Fast-forward two years, and The Features are back again with their latest album, Wilderness, again put out by Serpents & Snakes. And listening to the album, I can immediately understand the kinship the Followills must feel with Features members Matt Pelham (vocals/guitar), Roger Dabbs (bass), Rollum Haas (drums), and Mark Bond (keys).

See, both bands manage to merge the countrified, rootsy Americana of their native state with a more “modern”-sounding indie-rock sensibility and a heavy dose of classic-rock adoration, and then funnel the whole mess out through massive speakers. There’s a lot on Wilderness that points backwards to the Kings’ Youth and Young Manhood, but The Features aren’t coattail-riders by any measure.

While their brethren drift upwards into arena-sized anthems, Pelham and his cohorts take the bus into the Big, Bad City and crawl their way through bar after bar, cutting that rootsy sound with dancefloor-ready, downright funky rhythms and synths that switch between a Doors-y organ sound and a more high-flying, fuzzed-out take on prog-rock keyboards (see “Love Is…” for a good example of the latter).

The effect is almost to make Wilderness sound like those city boys The Strokes if they’d decamped out to the countryside to try to rediscover themselves (or something cheeseball like that)…except that in this case, the result is fairly badass.

My one quibble here would be that the band picked the wrong song to start off with. Wilderness begins with “Content,” which isn’t a bad track, by any means, but it’s slower and more meandering than I’d expected. The track’s nicely murky and uncertain, and I like the wavery organ, but then The Features get to “Kids,” which practically kicks the preceding song out of the way and proceeds to light the room on fire.

It’s raw, loud, and fiery, riding the line between Priestess-like metal and backwoodsy Southern rock, and to make things even better, it’s all a somewhat-sarcastic look at the perils of fatherhood, chronicling a man’s wild, wild youth and the way life circles around and around again. Should’ve opened with that one, y’all; just a little helpful pointer.

By that point, though, you’re hooked one way or another, rolling on into the synth-heavy “Another One,” with its ’70s-sounding rhythm and warbling blast of pop-rock goodness. “How It Starts” falls in the same territory, with a bit of a resemblance to OK Go, to boot, and “Offer Up” takes the band’s pop tendencies up a notch, with a light, bouncy feel. Even when the band moves away from the rootsier stuff, mind you, there’s still a decidedly Southern feel to the music, due mostly to Pelham’s gently-lilting vocals.

Then there’s “Big Mama Gonna Whip Us Good,” which is easily the catchiest, bluesiest song you’re likely to ever hear about, well, climate change. It’s rough-edged and loose, with lyrics that seem jovial and almost tongue-in-cheek at first but eventually make you wonder if these guys really are serious about the environmental catastrophes we’re facing. Musically, it’s an awesome, awesome raveup of a song, blazing with a Zeppelin-like fire.

Further on, The Features jangle through the rootsy, deliberate “Golden Comb” before arriving at “Fats Domino,” which is soulful and incredible, a slow-moving, gently-picked tune that sounds like it could’ve spun while ’50s teenagers at some rural high school gym danced and swayed…at least, until it revs up into a Dylan-esque folk stomp, and it becomes clear that its a breakup song, not a makeout song. When Pelham ferociously declares, “You can have everything you want / except my rock ‘n roll, my love / Put down Fats Domino,” it makes me want to put my fist in the air.

Even at the end, the band can’t resist throwing a curveball with “Chapter III”; they start off with a great acoustic bluegrass riff but quickly abandon it to return to that aforementioned City and go trawling through its darkened alleyways and nightclubs once again. These boys may be from the wilds of Tennessee, but they’re not going to stay there for long — see ’em now, while you can.

[The Features are playing 1/26/12 at Fitzgerald’s, along with The Live Lights & The Docs.]
(Bug Music/Serpents and Snakes Records --; The Features --; The Features (Facebook) --
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Review by . Review posted Thursday, January 26th, 2012. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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