The Badlees Story

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The Badlees were in limbo, unsure about their fate on a national label, yet unable to affirmatively do much to further their career on that front. They did receive the OK from the label to produce a short new EP of "unplugged" songs that were recorded in Bret Alexander's basement studio.

The result is called The Day's Parade, and, although it fell far short of the bands goal of releasing a new "album", it was the first new published material from the Badlees in nearly three and a half years. It featured simple, mainly-acoustic arrangements and a definite "live" feel. It was fueled by various combinations of acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, and just a tad of electric guitar lead from Alexander and Feltenberger, along with minimal rhythm from Simasek and Smith and well-represented harmonica and lead vocals from Palladino.

The five-song EP was bookmarked by two new originals by Alexander/Naydock, the upbeat opener "Leaning on the Days Parade" and the waltz-like ballad "90% of the Time", with some interesting wah-wah laced guitar leads, as a closer. The other three songs on The Day's Parade are remakes, two of which were updated versions of older Badlees tunes, with the third being an intense, upbeat version of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City", sung by Bret Alexander and, to date, the only true "cover" in the Badlees band catalog. The two updated songs came from the Badlees first two releases, "Last Great Act of Defiance" from the It Ain't For You EP and an excellent, banjo-based version of "Diamonds in the Coal" from the LP of the same name.

The Day's Parade was released on the independent Rite-Off records, just as those early recordings had been, in July 1998. But its unplanned, quick recording and nearly instantaneous release tended to confuse many loyal Badlees fans and critics alike. They were strongly anticipating a full-length, major label release from the band and didnít understand the corporate mess that was causing its delay.

Frankly, the band did not understand either. How is it good business to NOT release an already-bought-and-paid for high-end production by a band with a loyal fan base that is large in number and hungers for new material? Over the final months of 1998 and into 1999, the Badlees played steadily to packed shows in and around Pennsylvania but made little headway with the label that continued to hold them in corporate limbo. They requested, then demanded, then begged the label to either release Up There, Down Here to the public, or release the Badlees from their contract, but got little to no response.

Finally, they came up with a radical idea to simply make their own fully-produced, full-length album independently and without consent from the label. Bret Alexander was confident that his ever-growing home studio was to the point where they could accomplish this mission sonically. Terry Selders felt that this rash move by the band could not possibly be ignored by the folks at the new Universal Music Group, and was bound to cause some movement one way or another. The band members realized that this action would probably mean the death of Up There, Down Here, as Universal owned the rights to that recording.

The new album, Amazing Grace, was recorded, mixed, mastered, and pressed in just two months at Bret Alexander's home studio. It features the most diverse array of songwriting and voices, as well as styles and moods, and is testament to a true genius that the band possesses, that had been suppressed in recent years.

If you include the already-finished-but-yet-to-be released Up There, Down Here, Pete Palladino sang lead vocals on 56 of the 58 songs that the Badlees had published since 1990, but of the eleven tracks that made up Amazing Grace, Pete would only be the lead singer on four. But on the flipside, Palladino had no individual songwriting credits on any of those previous recordings, but he did have one on this album, a pop gem which he co-wrote with Mike Naydock titled "A Fever", which contains some pristine, soprano vocals in the hook and is reminiscent to some of the higher quality material put out by Tears For Fears in the 1980s.

Jeff Feltenberger wrote "Appalachian Scream", a blue-grass tinged, banjo-driven song on which he performs lead vocals for the first time since the days of Bad Lee White. Paul Smith sings lead vocals for the first time on any Badlees song, with his quirky yet soulful "Ainít No Man", which has a "Roadhouse Blues" feel with a rolling musical interlude and features a heavy dose of piano and B3 organ by guest Robert Scott Richardson. This was one of two songs written by Smith for the album. The other, "Long Good Night", a fast-paced, upbeat, catchy rocker, sung by Palladino, became a crowd favorite at shows and got some regional airplay.

The rest of Amazing Grace is a showcase for Bret Alexander, as a producer, as a performer, and, most especially, as a songwriter. He sings lead vocals on five of these tracks, including the happy, poppy, yet surreal "Poison Ivy", which leads the listener into yet unchartered territory. The tune bounces happily along to a scathing lyric about dealing with necessary evils while trying to reach a goal and features some strategic splashes of instrumentation that range from the vintage sound of down-home banjo to the futuristic surreal textures of an appregiated piano. Although this is one song where Pete Palladino may have been a better choice for vocalist, it remains one of the more interesting songs that the band has ever made.

Where Bret's vocals fit perfectly is on the album's masterpiece, "Amazing Grace to You", a dramatic, frantic song, with wild, unruly guitars and Hammond organ, all to a beat with an odd time signature. It is laced with clever lyrical vignettes delivered in a cool-talking voice during the verse that jumps to a desperate wail during the chorus. This is light years away from Bret's calm crooning in "Time Turns Around", which features a sound that brings the listener to some dark, smoky jazz club in a time long past.

The album is bookended by two more, Alexander-penned tracks. "Iím Not Here Anymore", sung by Palladino, is an unusual but, perhaps, appropriate choice to lead things off with a deep, melancholy mood of the almost whiney guitar, to the beats of marching drums and piano riff. The closing song, "In a Minor Way", is sung by Alexander and straddles the divide between punk/new wave and the guitar-driven pop of the 1960s, in much the same vein as Tom Petty did in the past and the Cellarbirds would in the near future.

Amazing Grace was released on the Rite-Off label on April 2, 1999. The strategy to cause movement at Universal apparently worked, as the Badlees were dropped from the label on the very day that this album was released. It was understood at the time that the recordings for Up There, Down Here were now, in fact, casualties. Still, some members showed incredible serenity when reflecting on the apparent loss of their artwork that they spent years forging and fight for. As Bret put it; "I already wrote it, we recorded it, we had a good time recording it, and we made a nice piece of music. Everything else after that is really gravy." But not everyone had had given up the fight.

Terry Selders had brought in attorney and agent Larry Mazer to try and get the band picked up by another major label but he was having little success on this front. So Terry contacted John Rotella, who had worked at Polydor when the Badlees were signed and was himself a casualty of the Seagram's sale. Rotella was now at a label called Ark 21, owned by Miles Copeland, who had previously been phenomenally successful with I.R.S. Records, which he co-founded in 1979. Through the joint efforts of Selders, Mazer, and Rotella, Ark 21 was able to gain the rights for Up There, Down Here from Universal and by May 1999 a deal was in place.

Up There, Down Here would finally be released to the public in August of that year on the Ark 21 label. The only provision of the deal was that the Badlees would have to stop actively promoting their recently-released Amazing Grace album. For this reason, the most interesting album that the band had ever made, the album which Bret Alexander referred to as the Badlees "White Album" because of its eclectic styles and diversity of voices, would be largely overlooked the very year in which it was released.

If Amazing Grace is comparable to the Beatlesí White Album, then, perhaps Up There, Down Here can be compared to Let It Be, at least in the sense that they were each recorded prior to the material on the album that immediately preceded them. Also, much like the critique of Let It Be, a case can be made that Up There, Down Here is a bit uneven and just a tad over-produced. This may very well be only in contrast to its immediate predecessor, which had an overall cohesive sound, stamped with the Badlees' hallmark, roots rock, in spite of every song carrying a strong distinction. But this could also be simply because there are a handful of fantastic gems on Up There, Down Here, that the other, merely adequate songs, pale in comparison.

The first song, "Donít Let Me Hide" is undoubtedly the best song on the album, with a profound lyric, subtle, moody guitars and excellent high harmonies that complement the strong lead vocals. There is definitely an Alanis Morissette influence on this song, with its rhythmic drums and a strong distinction between verse and chorus. Another song, "Which One of You", may well be the best pop-oriented song that the band has ever done. With entertaining, driving riffs and clear, melodic hooks, this song surely became a huge in some alternate universe, where proper label support was provided to the band.

Up There, Down Here is notable for bringing to the surface some elements of the band's talent that had frequently blended into the fabric of their fine songs of the past. Jeff Feltenberger shines on this album like never before. He wrote the moody masterpiece "34 Winters", which includes some fantastic vocal trade-offs between himself and Pete Palladino, a quality that is also present in the beautifully atmospheric "Thinking In Ways", another profound gem. Ron Simasek's precision, yet intricate, drumming skills can really be appreciated throughout the album like never before, well spotlighted due to its high-end production.

Most of the afore-mentioned gems reside near the top of the album. Towards the middle of the album, there are several songs that show flashes of brilliance or potential but don't seem to quite get there. But Up There, Down Here finishes strong, as the final three songs on the album are all interesting. "Silly Little Man" may forecast some of new, experimental sounds that Alexander and the band would explore in the coming decade. This song has a rhythm in the same vein as "Sweet Home Alabama" while simultaneously possessing a very Beatle-esque vibe with references to "the beautiful people" in the hook and a chaotic, "A Day in the Life"-like conclusion. The next song, "The Second Coming of Chris" is a mechanical, quirky show tune that has some masterful plays on words and untamed electric guitars. The closer, "A Little Faith", is a short (san the "hidden track within it") Americana-fused ballad sung by Bret Alexander that seems to draw deep influence from Springsteen's Nebraska album.

With the album that the band had prepared for and worked on for nearly four years finally released on August 24, 1999, the Badlees were ready to go on the road nationally in support of the album, as they had for River Songs. But there was yet more disappointment to come. It turned out that their new label, Ark 21 was well on its way to bankruptcy, and they seemed neither willing nor able to provide the band the support they needed to promote this album via touring, merchandising, or licensing. In fact, Terry Selders got so frustrated with this lack of support that he flew to the record company offices and manned the phones personally, trying to land licensing deals for songs from Up There, Down Here. He did have a measure of success, by getting a song onto the new Warner Brothers TV show Odd Man Out, and with the inclusion of "Donít Let Me Hide" in the movie Boys and Girls. But these were quite small victories for the band that had been true victims of misfortune, not of their own doing, over the past 18 months or so.

The Badlees left Ark 21 after a very short period and returned to their status as an independent band, a state where they had been nothing but productive, growing, and artistically successful in the past. But one final, unforeseen misfortune occurred in 1999, which would play a part in further altering the bandís course.

MS Distributors was an independent record distributor based in Hanover Park, IL. In fact, they were the largest independently-owned distributor on their kind, with representatives nationwide. They had been the distributors for Selderís independent label Rite-Off , from its inception with the Badlees first EP, and, in turn, the Badlees had become one of their top ten acts prior to the band being signed to a major label (and distributor) in 1995. In 1999, the company had been swindled by some unethical consultants who had promised to help steer the distributorship into the "digital age" but instead left MS Distributors facing bankruptcy. At the time, the distributor still owed Rite Off records a large sum of money but, through the bankruptcy settlement could only agree to pay half of their balance, resulting in a revenue loss of over $10,000.

With these compounded situations and with the recent arrival of his newborn son, Terry Selders decided it was time to move on. In late 1999 at a Badlees gig in Vermont, he announced to the band that he would no longer be their manager as the new millennium got underway.

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