The Features' frontman Matt Pelham is being sincere when he says, "At heart, we're sort of pop-rock guys." Their keyboard driven-blend of New Wave, power-pop, and psych-rock vacillates between punchy rock, hooky grace, and elegant flights of melodic fancy like E.L.O. doing their best Weezer.
Despite a quick cup of coffee with Universal Records, they've never been able to turn the irrepressible charm of their music and the critical accolades into the breakthrough that's always seemed within their reach. The funny thing is they probably couldn't care less about the lack of sustained success. Sure, they'd love it, but that's not why they do it.
"We all do it — as cheesy as it sounds — because we love doing it, and that's really been the only reason we've done it so long," Pelham says. "We've never made any serious money at it, and we've always had day jobs. I don't know if there was a point where we weren't struggling. I'm not sure if it would be as good if we weren't."
If blue collar referred to one's approach rather than the intended audience, you might call the Features blue-collar music. They doggedly go to work for very little return from duty and obligation (to themselves).
"I feel like we've been successful to a degree," Pelham says. "We've done things a lot of people don't get an opportunity to do. We're all grateful for the things that we've been able to dom like taking a couple months at a time when we can just go play music."
Pelham formed the band in Sparta, Tenn., with some middle school friends. Pelham and bassist Roger Dabbs moved to nearby Murfreesboro to study music at Middle Tennessee State in '97, where they recorded their first (unreleased) album a year later.
That's the same year they added drummer Rollum Haas. Keyboardist Mark Bond joined a little later, and his addition made a huge difference, playing a role similar to Elvis Costello's Attractions' Steve Naïve — balancing theatrical swells, washes of sonic texture, and perky driving keys.
"We want to write good pop-rock, but we do want to bring a little something else to the table when we do it. We try to make it a little more interesting than just some power-pop thing," Pelham says. "The keyboards are a big part of that."
They recorded a second unreleased album in 2000 before making their official debut with The Beginning EP in 2001. It generated some buzz, and they subsequently signed to Universal, who re-released it in 2004, followed by their full-length debut, Exhibit A. The latter generated critical heat but didn't do much commercially.
The band was preparing to get started on their second LP when Universal asked them to record a cover of the Beatles' "All You Need is Love" for a Chase Credit Card commercial. They declined the offer and were summarily dismissed from the label. "That was a really odd experience. All we wanted to do was record our second record. For seven or eight months, they sent back, 'Demo more songs, this won't cut it,'" Pelham recalls.
They left Universal and struggled on their own, releasing an EP titled Contrast in 2006 and Some Kind of Salvation in 2008.
Their buddies Kings of Leon's imprint, Serpents & Snakes, picked up Some Kind of Salvation in 2008, and things started looking up. The Features opened for the Kings of Leon on tour that year, but the somewhat moodier, more subdued album didn't attract another label deal.
They returned last summer with Wilderness, a more lively, rocking, somewhat theatrical release. The album's best moment comes during the swirling psych-pop calliope of "Love Is," which moves like the Walkmen and rightly concludes that there's nothing stranger than love is. It's a track that dates back to the late '90s.
"We were like, let's try an older song we've never recorded," Pelham laughs. "We hadn't played it in years. That was the first take, and it turned our pretty good. It was pretty nuts."
Fans and critics have responded positively to the group's new songs. Live shows seem to be tighter and more enjoyable for the band than ever. Maybe all the hard work and perseverance is finally paying off.
"We're not trying to do anything too deep," Pelham says. "We don't really have any concept going other than what I think the goal has always been — to make rock music that is timeless in the same respect as a lot of bands we grew up listening to."