What happens when the members of one of the most critically acclaimed and successful bands that Pennsylvania has ever produced decides to hit the studio together for the first time in seven years? Well, in a nutshell, things pick up right where they left off.
A great rock record is made.
"Love is Rain," the latest release from The Badlees, perfectly exemplifies why the group has received such acclaim and why it has developed such a loyal fan base. It's a perfect amalgamation of the clever roots rock for which the band is best known, yet it also embraces the pop sounds that helped propel the band up the national charts. And, perhaps most important, it's also a brash step forward. It offers radio-ready gems, eclectic instrumentation, a touch of modern rock, marvelous production and stunning album cuts unlike anything the band has recorded before.
The album opens with the clever, catchy and melodic "Peter Pan." A perfect pop song in every way, the track pulls in the listener on its first spin and never lets go. Though the song sounds as if it was built for radio, the arrangements bend and turn in a way to give it a fresh and vibrant vibe. "Star To Fall" is another breezy pop gem, though its slight twang and sturdy thump will also remind some of the band's five-star "River Songs" album. It also reminds us that though even some of the best songwriters can't write songs that cleverly combine a pre-chorus and a chorus, few songwriters do it as well as The Badlees.
But "Love Is Rain" is The Badlees in 2009, not 1995. And that's part of what makes it such a treasure. "Anodyne" is a grand U2-ish track that allows vocalist Pete Palladino to flex his vocal talents. And when it reaches its grand crescendo, you are reminded that though the band may have cut its teeth in the bars, it has also played the arenas.
The album's most gripping track is "Drive Back Home," a stirring, slightly cinematic number that builds with both force and grace and allows the listener to paint their own images to fit its picturesque storyline. Guitarist Bret Alexander, who wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the CD and produced it, offers lead vocals on the track and brings a perfect touch of emotion and grit while also sounding as if he's got his foot on the accelerator. It's a stunner.
With its fluttery and melodic pianos, it's easy to imagine "Don't Ever Let Me Down" riding the radio airwaves. The same goes for the bouncy and quirky "Well Laid Plans," which could serve as an audio definition for the term "power pop." And "Radio At Night" — perhaps the most radio-friendly tune on an album that's loaded with radio-friendly tunes — sounds as if it might be a bit of a nod to the band's fans and even to parts of its own past.
"Part of a Rainbow," with a guest appearance by Breaking Benjamin guitarist Aaron Fink, slides and glides with a driving rhythm and offers a touch of George Harrison, or even Oasis. And if you want to hear The Badlees rock, gallop and groove through a song with pure freedom and abandon, check out the explosive "Way Back Home," a fast-paced soaring number that Alexander has jokingly described as "three Who songs all jammed into one." It's a pretty good description, and it's the type of tune Palladino was born to sing. He's never sounded better, nor like he was having more fun.
All of this makes "Love Is Rain" a great listen, but again, there's much more happening within these 13 tracks. "We Will," again with Alexander on vocals, is unlike anything the band has done before. Like most of the group's songs, its lyrics are thought-provoking, yet this one also comes with some moving social commentary. Inspired by a TV report in which NBC's Tom Brokaw recalled being a young reporter covering the anti-war movement of the '60s, it's a Marvin Gaye-meets-Springsteen track that reinforces the notion that Alexander can write and sing songs as well as anybody.
"Two States," another track sung by Alexander, is equally impressive. Inspired by the recent death of his father, it too stirs up strong emotions while also revealing the sense of perspective found on "Love Is Rain." Though The Badlees are known for their third-person narrative storytelling songs, this album offers a band that is sometimes looking just as much inward as outward. And what we find is they themselves are just as interesting as their observations.
"Love Is Rain" is in many ways the perfect Badlees album. You get Alexander's trusty mandolins, ala "River Songs," the big pop/rock sounds of 2002's "Renew" and the lyrical depth of 1999's "Up There Down Here." And you get constant evidence of a group that has continued to grow.
Critics have placed The Badlees in the same class of songwriters as Springsteen, Mellencamp and Petty and have called them "America's best band." And radio programmers — before, during and after they danced with the major labels — have always been quick to add their music to their playlists.
"Love Is Rain" — perhaps more than anything the band has done before — is a testament as to why.
To hear an encore performance of Sunday night's two-hour "Love Is Rain" radio special that aired on 102.3-FM, The Mountain, visit the online version of this column at theweekender.com/music. The show features an interview with Bret Alexander and includes additional segments that did not air on Sunday. It also features all of the tracks from the album, plus a few past hits, and has been posted in its entirety, commercial free.