Calling a band such as the Cellarbirds a "side project" is almost like saying Paul McCartney "dabbled" with a group called Wings, Tom Petty "fooled around" with a little outfit called the Travelling Wilburys or Pete Townshend simply "made a few records" outside of The Who.
It just doesn't do the project justice.
The Cellarbirds — which features Bret Alexander, Paul Smith and Ron Simasek, all of The Badlees — is a bona-fide band of its own. And if you don't believe me, just check out "Perfect Smile," the group's debut CD that hit area record stores this week and is already garnering some strong regional airplay.
Tucked within its 10 tracks is a true amalgamation of pure rock 'n' roll and musical integrity, with twinges of a Tom Petty and John Lennon influence giving it an edgy vibrancy. It is music that is thoughtful, smart and passionate, and although it's a remarkably cohesive record, the songs range from introspective gems such as "Starting Over" to biting rockers such as "Happy Home" and breezy picture-painters such as "Open Ended."
It is — quite simply — a very, very good record.
"It's more of an unconscious thing," says chief songwriter and vocalist Bret Alexander when asked if stamping the album with musical elements of some of the trio's favorite artists was a planned move.
"As far as a statement of 'I was trying to do this or I was trying to do that' — we weren't trying to do anything. It was all about that particular moment. We got in there that day, we wrote the song, and we demoed it. We did that for two weeks, narrowed it down to 10 songs, and that's the record."
The Cellarbirds played their first live shows in early 1998, while members of The Badlees were tangled in the corporate mess known as the Polygram/Seagram sale. The reason they've now released an album, says Alexander, is creative and practical.
"It was becoming pretty clear that I was writing a lot of songs that weren't going to end up on Badlees records," says Alexander. "We were writing a lot of material that just didn't necessarily fit that format and didn't fit those guys. That was kind of the impetus — just to let these things have a home."
Additional highlights of the CD include "Someone Nice," "Lester's Breaking Even" and the first single, "Uncommonly Blue." The album, recorded late last year at Alexander and Smith's own Saturation Acres studio in Danville, was self-produced and has been released on their own S.A.M. Records label.
The sessions, says Alexander, moved quickly.
"We were doing the little shows, and playing some of the Badlees' B-sides like 'Bright Young Man' and the "Ballad of Dick & Jane' and songs like that. But in the interim, what happened was we opened up the studio and The Cellarbirds kind of became the 'house-band,' and we got very good at moving very fast.
"It got to the point where it was like, 'Hell, we're doing all of these amazing things for everybody else, why don't we do our own?' "
Making albums is nothing new to Alexander, Smith and Simasek. As members of The Badlees, they recorded five critically acclaimed full-length CDs, several EPs and landed two national recording contacts. The band appeared on VH1, toured the country with some of rock's biggest names and had two of its songs hit the national Top-10.
Even Gregg Allman once asked Alexander to help him write songs, and Bob Clearmountain — one of the most respected mixers in the production world — once told him there was nothing he could do to improve the sound or the mix on "Angeline Is Coming Home," a song the band produced and mixed themselves in a small Harrisburg studio. It was, said Clearmountain, fine as it was.
Now, however — after 12 years — the Badlees appear somewhat fragmented. Although they still perform together, vocalist Pete Palladino will release his first solo album next month, and guitarist Jeff Feltenberger's new project, Echotown, also has a new CD in stores.
Alexander is candid when asked for his assessment on the state of the band and to explain what he enjoys most about The Cellarbirds.
"I have pretty strong ideas about how I like to make records," he says, "and really — what it comes right down to — is Pete and I just don't agree. We don't agree on the way things should be done, or — more accurately — what needs to be done. It's sad, but true. And without him there, I don't have to wade through that."
Interestingly, all of the current Badlees-related projects were recorded at Saturation Acres, and Alexander served as a producer on all three albums. He says he's been confused and even annoyed by comments from some Badlees' members that the musical direction of the band was creatively restricting, and adds that musical compromises were always made by all of the group's members.
Alexander, choosing not to point fingers, adds that he's now realized that even his role as the group's musical director may need to be retooled if they are to stay together, and that despite some current tension, the new projects might help make The Badlees an even better band should they decide to record another album.
It is something he still hopes to do.
"I want to do it," he says. "Ironically, I think a big problem with the Badlees — myself included, and my intentions were good — is that I think everybody let their own agenda get in the way of what was best for the band. I honestly believe that. I think that everybody had their own thing that they wanted to happen, personally, and they let that get in the way of what was best for the whole group.
"I thought that those five guys could realize anything I wanted to do. Not that I was trying to shove my ideas down anybody's throat, but as ambitious as I was — or whatever I wanted to accomplish musically — I thought everybody would want to do that. And they don't. That's not what they want to do. So my thing is — if you want to look at it positively — these new projects are a good thing.
"Everybody can get what they want, and then hopefully if we want to make another Badlees record, we can go back in there and we do what's best for those five people."
For now, Alexander, Smith and Simasek say they're focused on the project at hand and are proud to be Cellarbirds. Initial reviews of the album have been positive, regional radio has been supportive and the band is beginning to carve a unique identity.
Alexander says that although he's aware some may always view any of the Badlees' members' additional work as mere "side projects," he knows The Cellarbirds have got the wings and the muscle to fly on their own.
"A lot of people won't consider it anything but that," he says with a laugh, "but our record is as good as anybody's record, period — even those people that only have to worry about one band, instead of three. I certainly want it to be treated as its own entity.
"And I think it will be."