Saturday, December 3, 2022

 Badlees still hold the cards

                                                                                                                                              Photo by Jim Gavenus

First album in nearly 10 years showcases band members' talents, flexes power of the unit

Music On The Menu
December 3, 2022 

If you were a betting man, you may have wagered that 2013's "Epiphones & Empty Rooms" might be the final album from The Badlees. And it would have been a pretty safe bet. Principal songwriter/guitarist Bret Alexander, who produced most of the band's albums, left the group shortly after its release. Bassist and fellow producer Paul Smith left as well. And though there were still some occasional live shows featuring new members, things never felt quite the same with the kings of Pennsylvania roots-rock and no new music was released by the band. And truthfully, if it were not for the group's induction into the Central Pennsylvania Music Hall of Fame last year, you very well may have collected on your wager. But when the band reunited for a few songs at that awards ceremony, which was held in Harrisburg, it wasn't just as though a spark was felt in the room. It was a lightning bolt. The kings were back. And in 2022, there is a new Badlees album. And with it they have laid down a royal flush.

The album, fittingly titled "The Badlees," is the group's first release to feature all five original members since 2009's "Love is Rain" and the first that all five made full contributions since 2002's "Renew." For thousands of the band's fans scattered across the Keystone State, vocalist Pete Palladino, guitarist Jeff Feltenberger, drummer Ron Simasek, along with Alexander and Smith, are the Fab Five. And it is indeed quite fabulous to hear them making music together again.

The album opens with "1,000 Melodies Without Words," and right from the get-go, we are reminded of the band's gift of crafting memorable melodies matched, verse-for-verse, with gripping lyrics. It's got a thumpy gut-punch rhythm section, soaring vocals from Palladino, textured harmonies from Feltenberger and Alexander flexes his songwriting talents as only he can do. Bring it all together and it's Fab Five.

"My mind's an ambulance in traffic
My heart's a flock of birds
How do I navigate this static
Of a 1,000 melodies without words"

Somewhere, Bruce Springsteen just smiled.

"10 Ton Heart," sounds as though it was written while speeding down a highway at twilight. It's a driving track, both literally and figuratively, with just a touch of pop. More than anything, it creates a mood. Music, when at its best, has an actual ambience to it, and when Alexander picks up his mandolin, as he does on this track, you can count on that happening. But that's just part of what makes "10 Ton Heart' so gripping. Palladino's inflections and the ripping guitars also help shape the song ... a song that will likely have you stepping on the gas pedal a bit harder. "Face Under Glass," a breezy track about Americana and family, comes with a fun vocal breakdown and "Tear It Down" offers a quick bridge-section that only Alexander could write. A great bridge is something even the best of songwriters can struggle with, but Alexander has been with penning them for three decades. Palladino, beautifully backed up by Feltenberger, also shines on the powerful track, as does violinist Nyke Van Wyk.

The contemplative "What I've Wasted" has a chorus that pulls you in and won't let go and the thoughtful "Leaving Here," with Alexander on lead vocals, talks about making the difficult decision to move on from a place or situation -  a place or situation that was once important to you - simply because it doesn't feel the same as it once did. "Nasty Alcoholic" comes with a Warren Zevon vibe and longtime Badlees fans will take delight with hearing Palladino and Feltenberger trading off vocals on the insanely catchy "The Price You Pay." Though "The Badlees" is a very modern, very 2022-sounding album, this track offers an old-school Badlees moment that briefly takes the listener back to "Diamonds in The Coal."

Somewhere, 10,000 Badlees fans just smiled.

"These Days," with its stirring, cinematic, U2 feel, comes with a haunting chorus that sounds as if Palladino, Alexander and Feltenberger are all singing together. And considering some of the album was recorded remotely, it's also a fine testament to the unit's production skills. The album closes with the wonderful "My Friends," a brilliant country-inspired number with a surprisingly big/little moment that Johnny Cash and some of his buddies would have covered in a milli-second.

Nearly 30 years ago, I called The Badlees "Pennsylvania's Best Band." A few years later, when they released some of their music on a national record label and were touring the country with Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, I called them "America's Best Band." Both still apply. Even if it's only when the mood strikes them, they are still the kings. And "The Badlees," which will be released on December 23, is another creative album loaded, track-for-track, with very creative songs. It captures the special talents that have been dealt to each member, yet it also captures the special magic that only happens when they work together.

Fab five.

Royal flush.

(Alan K. Stout has written about rock and pop music in Northeastern Pennsylvania since 1992. His weekly radio show, "Music On The Menu," airs every Sunday from 9-10 p.m. on 105 The River in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Hazleton, Bloomsburg.)

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