The name of the band may be Echotown, but the music is resonating a sound of its own.
Founded by Badlees guitarist Jeff Feltenberger, Echotown's new self-titled CD is in stores now. And although the group offers some elements of the roots-rock approach for which Feltenberger is best known, it's actually a much more country-flavored album.
And that, he says, is where his own musical roots reach the deepest.
"I was just trying to think past The Badlees a little bit," says Feltenberger, adding that the uncertain status of the band also made it easier to move forward. "I feel that a lot of times we're constantly in flux. One day we're making a record; one day we're not making a record. The indecision, the going back and forth, and the switching of opinions is so aggravating."
"I wanted to step out of that, and have control over something."
Songs on the new album include the breezy "Been So Long," the rhythmic "Sacred and Sin," the picturesque "Joshua (US 93)" and the thoughtful "Little Things." There are also reworkings of three Badlees favorites.
The genre of music, says Feltenberger, came straight from the heart.
"I couldn't see myself really writing in a style that would fit rock radio right now, or even Top-40," he says. "I love that kind of alt-country stuff, like Son Volt. Steve Earle is my favorite writer in the world, so I kind of write like that and think like that.
"I also thought that some of the songs that were on The Badlees' records, like "34 Winters," "Ore Hill," and "I Liked You Better," didn't really get any kind of 'single' attention, and I thought they were all strong songs. So I just wanted to put my twist on those things, and just see where we ended up."
Joining Feltenberger in Echotown is Mike Morrison on guitar, Chris Novak on piano and organ, Robert Scott Richardson on bass and Badlees' and Cellarbirds' drummer Ron Simasek on drums. Feltenberger says he immediately felt an undeniable, cohesive spirit once the new band was formed.
"It really became a very cool thing," he says. "All of these other guys contributed songs, we have a couple Mike Naydock things on there, and it became a really cool 'band' feel, where everybody was contributing. I kind of missed that from The Badlees, which is how it used to be. This band — this Echotown thing — is definitely a band."
And that, says Feltenberger, is refreshing. He says The Badlees, with whom he's played for 12 years, no longer allows him a true creative outlet. And with Badlees members Bret Alexander and Paul Smith anchoring the new Cellarbirds project and vocalist Pete Palladino set to release his first solo album, there is a sense of strain in the Badlees' camp. Only drummer Simasek, who plays with all four projects, and writing partner Naydock, who writes with all of the band's members, seem free of friction.
"It's nice to have a leader, or someone who makes the final call, because if you don't, everything breaks down," says Feltenberger. "Every band kind of needs that person. But at the same time, 'a band' to me is everybody contributing ideas, and you kind of sift through it and come up with directions for the songs.
"With The Badlees, basically what it turned out to be was Bret and Paul deciding what direction the song was going to go. I would sing the background vocals and get my one guitar part, and Pete would come in and cut his vocals. It was kind of dealt. It wasn't a creative thing for everybody.
"That's why it's not as appealing to me, to go through that ... where you don't really even feel like you're a part of it," he adds. "I write songs, I have ideas, I feel like I'm a viable musician, and I want an outlet for my ideas. I love playing with The Badlees, and it's a bummer to me that something that I think was a real vehicle for a lot of things went into a direction that really didn't serve the whole band."
In fairness, Feltenberger points out that despite some creative differences, he finds Alexander an extremely talented and gifted musical director. It should also be noted that "Echotown" was recorded at Saturation Acres studio in Danville, which is owned and operated by Alexander and Smith, and that Alexander co-produced the album.
"I respect him tremendously as a producer and a writer," says Feltenberger. "He truly has vision. Honestly, he's the best producer I know, and he does things that I like. I would have him produce anything that I would write, and I'd be honored. He has the gift, and he's really in a good position having a studio. That's where he shines ...
"He and Pete clash sometimes, because I think Pete would do other things, but I think that's just Pete's pop sensibility coming out. Bret approaches things more deeply, like 'What is the root of this?' It's more organic."
Feltenberger says 1995's "River Songs" — in his opinion — showcases The Badlees at their best. He acknowledges that everyone grows, in their personal lives and as artists, but he'd be willing — if all of the members could get back on the same page — to try to catch that magic again and record another album.
"I would, for sure, but I don't see how it would happen," he says. "It could be a cool environment. I don't think it's out of the question to just come together and see what happens. But I personally don't want to go through that sick feeling, where you're sitting in the studio, and you feel like an island, because no one's behind you. In a band, everybody's pulling for each other, rather than sitting there scoffing at one another. It's just not a cool environment to make a record — when there's no mutual respect.
"I don't have any of that with Echotown. It's just a really great feeling to step out on stage and not feel someone's looking over your shoulder. When you step out more, you can play freely, and you can be creative."
Feltenberger concludes that he knows all of the members of The Badlees — who still perform together on occasion — are level-headed and mature people. He believes that's what helped them stay together for over a decade, record five critically acclaimed albums, land two national record deals, score two national top-10 hits and tour the country with some of rock's top acts.
For now, however, Feltenberger is busy performing with the Pete & Jeff duo and is focusing on Echotown. The band has gained some regional airplay on country radio with its first single, "A Dinner With Richard Petty," and is scheduling some live performances. Feltenberger says the album hasn't even been shopped to major labels, and, at least for the time being, the group prefers to take a grass-roots approach.
What's most important, he says, is the group is having fun.
"The players in the band are really, really top notch," he says. "They all come from fairly successful situations of their own. It's just a total band vibe. Everybody brings something to the table, whether it's amazing chops or amazing creativity. It could be the 'new girlfriend syndrome,' where there hasn't been enough time for things to go wrong, but it's a ton of fun playing live, and it was blast recording."
"It's a total thrill."