If you’re gonna play highway-driving, bar-haunting, trailer-parking, lovesick scruffy T-shirt roots-rock, there are probably worse places to come from than Festus, Missouri. After all, it’s both Midwestern and Southern, a small town right by a big city. Fueled by the purified essence of roadhouse rock’n’roll but sweet on country swing and steering the bus with intelligence and a temperate sense of humor, the Bottle Rockets can play it safe when they want — and then floor the noise pedal in a Crazy Horse explosion of controlled fury. These club veterans can do it with their eyes closed, but they’re wise enough to know that it’s more fun when you get to watch.
Having evolved from a group called Chicken Truck, the car-obsessed quartet cut its first album in Athens, Georgia. Produced by John Keane and featuring guest appearances by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar of Uncle Tupelo (on whose March 16-20, 1992 Bottle Rockets frontman Brian Henneman played), Bottle Rockets is eager and excitable, fun but sometimes clumsy. Ingenuous enough to obsess about a filling station “Gas Girl” and pitch woo with a car bumper in “Every Kinda Everything,” the Bottle Rockets are also ready to condemn rebel hostility in “Wave That Flag” and funny enough to chronicle the culture incongruities of “Manhattan Countryside.” Singer/guitarist Henneman has a burly voice better suited to the randy slobber of “Trailer Mama” than the sensitive restraint of “Got What I Wanted,” but when he tells the story of a burned-out trailer in “Kerosene,” cutting Keane’s pretty pedal steel with angry indignation, it’s obvious he’s listening to the words he’s singing.
Made in New York with Eric Ambel at the board, The Brooklyn Side is a sharper, harder, more cosmopolitan collection that brings the band’s strengths into cohesive focus with infinitely better songs. (So much for the sophomore jinx.) The thick, roaring “1000 Dollar Car” is a wry, hard-won lesson in previously owned automotive economics; “Radar Gun” offers more motoring fun (and a way to make a quick buck). Over a stormy Neil Young sound in “Sunday Sports,” Henneman describes a couch potato making his weekly escape from life. The twangy “Idiot’s Revenge” takes a cue from Merle Haggard in pissing all over someone who “likes Dinosaur Jr but she can’t tell you why/Says, you like country music, man you deserve to die.” On the serious romantic tip, the memorably melodic surge of “I’ll Be Comin’ Around” extends an insistent back-door- hand. “If he ever breaks your heart/Decides he wants to make a new start/Or if you just want to be vile/And he steps out for a while.” An album unguarded enough to brush up against Jimi Hendrix in one song (“Stuck in a Rut”) and mention Hank Williams in another (“Queen of the World”), The Brooklyn Side is the rollercoaster to ride.
Producer Ambel and the band moved to John Mellencamp’s hometown of Bloomington, Indiana to make 24 Hours a Day, which delivers on the promise of The Brooklyn Side by examining blue-collar life in the Midwest. “Indianapolis,” a tale of woe about being stranded with a broken-down van, involves a demented tow-truck driver (“Told me ’bout a sex offense put him three days in jail … Hope I live to tell the tale), Firestone and a poke at rock’s Hoosier hotshot (“I’ll puke if that jukebox plays John Cougar one more time”). In “Slo Toms” (a Missouri hangout pictured on the inside cover) one can almost hear the cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon being cracked open as the song lopes to life. Life isn’t all fun on 24 Hours a Day — Henneman paints a devastating acoustic portrait of a single mom “Smokin’ 100’s Alone” and an even bleaker picture of a failed father in “Waitin’ on a Train.” It doesn’t matter that Neil Young’s influence is audible in the lengthy guitar solo on “Things You Didnt Know” — the masterful 24 Hours a Day breezes beyond all such considerations.
Bassist Tom V Ray left before the release of the mini- album Leftovers, but he’s still on all eight tracks, which were recorded during the 24 Hours a Day sessions. There’s no dark side to Leftovers — just more humorous tales of coffee addiction (“Coffee Monkey”) and cheap hotel sex (“If Walls Could Talk”). The closest thing to a serious tale is Henneman’s “Get Down River,” which takes in the power of the mighty Mississippi, and was even used in a PBS special about the river’s history.
With bassist Robert Kearns in the lineup, Brand New Year brings the Bottle Rockets closer to the album rock of his former band, Cry of Love. “Nancy Sinatra” sounds like a forced bid for airplay, while “Alone in Bad Company” is a twisted R.E.M. impression. Fortunately the spark hasn’t completely gone out, as “Headed for the Ditch” covers the Neil Young base (complete with a namecheck) and the two versions of the title track seethe with the desperation one can feel around the holidays. “Love Like a Truck” adds another chapter to the band’s fascination with vehicles and turns it into a sweet love song. And it wouldn’t be a Bottle Rockets album without a side-splitter, in this case “Gotta Get Up,” which repeats the chorus “Gotta get up / Gotta go to work / Then I come home / Cause I gotta go to bed / Cause I gotta get up” five times before Henneman adds “So I can sleep my two days off away and do it all over again.” Brand New Year is not a bad album, it’s just a letdown from the band’s previous work.
Made in just six days to have new material to tour behind, Songs of Sahm would make late border music legend Doug Sahm happy. The loving and respectful versions of 13 Sahm songs prove that Henneman and Kearns have jelled as singers after a couple of years of touring, and their vocals blend effortlessly on “Floataway” and “Be Real.” Tunes like “Lawd, I’m Just a Country Boy in This Great Big Freaky City” and “Stoned Faces Don’t Lie” mesh perfectly with the group’s own quirky sense of humor.
Guitarist Tom Parr left the group just as the album was released, forcing the band to fulfill its touring commitments as a trio. In 2003, they went into the studio with Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes to make Blue Sky. The album mines the same roots-rock vein as previous efforts, but this one doesn’t crank the volume up to 11. Henneman sounds comfortable with his voice for a change, and doesn’t seem to be shouting over the band for the first time. “Baggage Claim” (about relationships in a post 9/11 world) and “Mom & Dad” (about Henneman’s parents, who passed away within a few weeks of each other) reveal a lyrical depth the band has rarely reached before. Shortly after Blue Sky was completed, St. Louis, Missouri multi-instrumentalist John Horton joined the band.
Another lineup change preceded Zoysia, as singer-bassist Robert Kearns departed and was replaced by Keith Voegele. The switch didn’t alter the basic Bottle Rockets sound — crunchy Neil Young-inspired riffs with sterling lead guitar work from Henneman still dominate (“Middle Man,” “Happy Anniversary”). And the ever-present sly humor in the band’s best work still rings true in “I Quit,” a tale of a staying sober when friends try to trip you off the wagon. However, Zoysia (named after a sturdy type of grass popular in the band’s home state of Missouri) is at its best when it continues in the post-9/11 lyrical vein of Blue Sky. “Align Yourself,” “Blind” and the title track all touch upon living in an America that has come to define itself in terms of “blue” and “red” states. “Align Yourself” is particularly biting when Henneman sings, “If you align yourself, define yourself, when you don’t know who you are you can remind yourself.” The epic (over seven minutes) title track paints a picture of a country where those with different beliefs can still be friends, which seems to suit Henneman and his bandmates just fine.