Friday, February 25, 2005

Musical creativity still flows

10 years later, The Badlees 'River Songs' album still reveals its greatness

February 25, 2005

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the The Badlees' monumental "River Songs" album. It is the album that landed the band the first of two national recording contracts and eventually put it on the national charts, VH1 and the stages of some of the country's largest arenas.

It is an album that helped forever change the face of music in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

I went back down to that special river last weekend and swam in its waters. I popped "River Songs" into the car stereo and took it for a good long ride, amid the mountains and valleys that helped inspire it. I drove along the Susquehanna, for which the album was named, and I cruised by some of the bars and clubs where its songs were first played. I recalled the magic of hearing the album for the first time, and I again appreciated its significance.

Because The Badlees are a true roots-rock unit, their music remains fashion-free and timeless. "Angeline Is Coming Home" is still a terrific pop song, though its almost biblical, non-judgmental "Prodigal Son" theme clearly makes it so much more. Though the tune might still be in karaoke machines across the nation, and I once heard its familiar melody set to Muzak in a supermarket, its vibrant and celebratory message of unconditional friendship still makes it a lyrical gem and a bit of a pop oddity.

(I don't know how many of the millions who have heard the song know it's actually about a woman coming home from rehab, but, to their credit, the band and songwriting partner Mike Naydock have always told anyone who asks.)

"Fear of Falling," used by NBC-TV during the 1996 Winter Olympics, sounded like an instant classic a decade ago and has stood the test of time as well, and the Springsteen-esque "Angels of Mercy," with its soaring chorus, driving power chords and thumpy bass line, remains one of the best tracks on the album. The nearly two-year "River Songs" tour swung across America not once but twice, and "Angels of Mercy," spiced with a keen, post-grunge sense of optimism and humor, was the perfect opening song almost every night.

The eclectic instrumentation of "River Songs" also contributes to its genius. Mandolins, dulcimers, kazoos, organs and dobros all find their way into its stirring 11 tracks, and you'd again have to dip into the Springsteen catalog to find a more thoughtful and perfect use of simple harmonica than the poignant "Ore Hill." At the time of its release, I recall, friends said "Ore Hill" brought tears to their eyes. Such a connection is difficult to make with music, but The Badlees — named by Times Leader readers as their favorite band two months before the release of "`River Songs" — had made that connection.

"River Songs" was released locally in February 1995, and, after the band signed with Polydor/Atlas records, re-released nationally in October. It was an exciting time, not only for a fan but also for a journalist covering a band that was hitting on all cylinders. When people sometimes ask me for my favorite professional moment in journalism, it takes only one second to answer. It was the fall of that year, watching the group perform at the 18,000-seat Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, only eight months after seeing the band playing in local clubs, often for just a few hundred people.

"We'd like to thank Robert Plant and Jimmy Page for having us here tonight," vocalist Pete Palladino said.

Some of the plentiful "River Songs" stories have never been told. Gregg Allman was so impressed with the album that he once asked the group's principal songwriter, Bret Alexander, to help him write some songs. And when Polydor asked legendary mixer Bob Clearmountain to remix "Angeline Is Coming Home" for national release, Clearmountain called Alexander and said he thought the self-produced song sounded fine as it was.

Still, despite its excellent production, gripping harmonies and clever musicianship, it's the lyrics that make "River Songs" such a special album. Listen to the wit of the country-flavored "I Liked You Better When You Hated Yourself," the wisdom of the stompy "Nothing Much of Anything" and the breezy flow of "Gwendolyn," which can still draw the most reluctant wallflowers to the dance floor, and you, too, will again feel its magic.

Listen to the extraordinary depth of "Bendin' The Rules," which tells the tale of a struggling family desperately trying to provide medical attention to its ailing son, and follow the cinematic images of the epic "Song For A River," and you once again will be reminded of its greatness.

"River Songs," 10 years later, remains a mini-masterpiece, and though the band has since recorded several more outstanding albums, it remains monumental not only because of its quality but because of its importance. Though The Badlees time with Polydor was turbulent and ultimately - due to the Polygram/Seagrams sale -  disappointing, it did open at least a few musical doors not only for their career but for dozens of other area bands who now present their art with confidence and whose art is now given a fair listen. Because of "River Songs" we know bands from our home region can make a record just as good if not better than any we've heard.

I revisited that special river last weekend, and I saw "River Songs" for all it once was, all it remains and all it has become: 

A milestone.