At a time when many in the rock world were in the process of re-imaging from the slick 80’s hair band to the grungy 90s alternative, a young Pennsylvania band called The Badlees was forging their own path with a sound called “roots rock” with their first full length album, Diamonds In the Coal. The band, which had been steadily gaining popularity since the release of their initial EP It Ain’t For You in late 1990, had solidified their lineup with the addition of Paul Smith in 1991. With Smith’s addition, the Badlees had the core quintet in place that would drive them through their most productive years. The result is a well-crafted, entertaining, and thoughtful album with fine and exquisite details.
The album was co-produced by guitarist Bret Alexander and contains all original compositions which were mainly written by Alexander with about half being co-penned by band associate Mike Naydock. The songs are augmented by a structure of electric and acoustic guitars, solid rhythms, judicious use of ethic instruments, layered vocals, and thoughtful lyrics.
There are few things easier than to live badly and die well…”
This quote by Oscar Wilde was placed inner sleeve of Diamonds In the Coal, in an obvious play on the band’s name. Further, each song on the lyrics page contained its own special quote from philosophers and artists ranging from Aristotle to Andy Warhol, some of the extra attention to detail the band put into the atmosphere of the album. Topping it off were the authentic pictures that were used for the cover of early 20th century coal miners that drummer Ron Simasek found at a local Historical Society.
Thematically, Diamonds In the Coal is nearly sliced in half by the light intermission of “Interlude/Badlee Rap”, with the rap itself performed by Loose Bruce above some slight guitar and harmonica. Songs previous to this on the album are mainly pop-oriented, with basic structure and strong hooks. This all starts with the opener “Like a Rembrandt”, of which Alexander sets the scene as “a bunch of young kids partying out by an old coal breaker and realizing full well that this may be the greatest summer of their lives”.
“Back Where We Came From” (commonly referred to as “The Na Na Song”) follows with a strong delivery by lead vocalist Pete Palladino. This acoustic-driven tune with electric overtones, was the first single from the album and the first to receive significant airplay. It also shows that the Badlees had perfected a song template that the much more heralded Hootie and the Blowfish would replicate years later. Despite the Bon Jovi-ish hook at the onset, “Heaven On Earth” is still a song with good instrumentation lead by a solid, strummed acoustic while the lighter sound of “The Real Thing” contains serene and solid guitar riffs by Alexander with just a touch of the instrument which would become more predominant in the band, the mandolin. “Just One Moment” is another pop-oriented track with a bouncy and choppy riff, good vocals, and strong back beat by Simasek.
The second “half” of the album contains songs that explore deeper subject matter and richer musical structure. Guitarist Jeff Feltenberger provides good vocal interplay with Palladino during “The Next Big Thing”, while upbeat power-pop anthem “Dirty Neon Times” provides more fantastic vocal harmonies by Feltenberger in a pleasant, acoustic driven song.
Alexander’s “Spending My Inheritance” is a well composed, sort of “people’s anthem” tune with some harmonica intertwined with fiddle by guest performer David Rose. “Sister Shirley” is perhaps the most unique song on the album. It includes a picturesque lyrical narrative by Naydock and some sweet, jazzy guitar by Alexander – a rewarding listen, which shows the band’s musical and compositional range. Feltenberger wrote “Road to Paradise”, in an odd time, with steady acoustic strumming against slightly spastic drums all topped by intricate, three-part vocal patterns.
The closing title song is the true masterpiece of Diamonds In the Coal. Here, the listener is brought into the dark, forgotten patch towns of Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region. The imagery in this song’s lyric is so vivid that you can almost feel the coal dust flying, while the music sets the perfect scene with a methodic, marching rhythm below and some authentic, ethnic instrumentation up above. This song showed the true promise of the band in 1992 and would be the primer for their breakthrough album River Songs three years later.
Recently, Bret Alexander looked back with great fondness on the creation of this album, saying he had a tremendous amount of fun and creative fulfillment writing the songs and producing Diamonds In the Coal. Although he does lament that he doesn’t feel that the overall “sound” of the album has held up sonically through the years. There is a definite early-nineties, polished-up quality with the drum sound snare-centric, the rhythms contain little variation, and the well-compressed vocals always seeming to hang at eye-level. But still, after 20 years, a deeper listener will definitely appreciate the quality of the songs and recognize the watershed of creative music “springs” that began their flow with Diamonds.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1992 albums.