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THE BOTTLE ROCKETS

The Brooklyn Side
Rating: 9
   You wouldn't expect an album this good from any group constituted like the Bottle Rockets: Missouri bar-band veterans led by a former Uncle Tupelo roadie. But it's simply amazing the depth of insight, melodic power, and sheer stomping groove that this group conveys.
   The Bottle Rockets' sound is a combination of distorted guitars over 12-bar southern boogie, but it never gets old, as the groups finds a different groove for every track, and songwriter Brian Henneman is quite simply brilliant. The loose concept behind this album is "a day in the life of Festus, Missouri" and every song is detailed and evocative; perhaps you have to be an American to understand the culture being depicted, but the lyrics move me in so many ways. Henneman is not merely an observer, he's a sympathetic writer, able to capture the voices of his subjects not only in his words but with the tones of his melodies.
   Henneman explores the little nuances of life with a deft touch, from bringing in a chiming mandolin to underscore the baby dancing to "Welfare Music" ("cassettes from the bargain bin"), creating a grinding riff with impressive string bends to accompany "Radar Gun" ("dropping those limits like a hot potato"), playing a luscious jazzy progression for "Pot of Gold" ("if I'm just dreaming, let me sleep forever, tell me I'm dead"), arpeggiating a tense suspending chord for "I'll Be Coming Around" ("if he steps out for a while / And you just wanna be vile"), strumming a mournful melody on "Thousand Dollar Car" ("it ain't worth shit/ might as well take your thousand dollars, and set fire to it"), pounding out a half-time groove for "Stuck in a Rut" ("same old girls / not giving me the same old love"), or sliding out a ropy descending riff on "I Wanna Come Home" ("this motel bed don't fit / but I'm gonna have to lie in it / 'cause I made it on the day I split.")
   And his band, particularly drummer Mark Ortmann, provide the perfect backing for it all. From a thrashing half-time beat with accents between the downbeats, to a propulsive ride cymbal pattern, to a gentle cross-stick line, Ortmann never fails to create the right atmosphere. Tom Parr and Tom Ray fit nicely in the grooves, too, never getting in the way of Henneman's vocals or guitar leads.
   This is an endlessly fascinating album; each track offers an authentic glimpse into a real American mind; sometimes it's not pretty, but it's all true, insightful, catchy, and moving.
   If someone from the big city wants to know what it's like in the little towns of our great land, I recommend this album. And if a small town rock and roll lovers want to know whether anyone has written their stories, they need look no further. A masterpiece.

READER COMMENTS

  • From Tony Souza: Definitely an undiscovered gem. "Sunday Sports" is oh-so-true, and "1000 Dollar Car" alone is worth the price of admission. The rest of the songs are just as good. The music rocks harder than most alt.country acts and Henneman's songwriting is a cut above the rest. This is their best release, though their other releases are also very good.

  • From Scott Floman: I just wanted to let you know that I've been meaning to get around to your site, and will shortly. I read (and was impressed by) your Bottle Rockets review, though, which reminded me how good it was (I hadn't listened to it in years). If you check out my site (www.geocities.com/sfloman/homepage.html) you'll see my review of it.
    By the way, it's cool how into your son you seem to be. I have an 11 1/2 month old myself and enjoy him to death (though he wears me out!).
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Thanks, I'm into Dad myself." Steve says, "With a cutie like Abe around, how can you not enjoy yourself?"

  • From Alexander Fong: I keep seeing you mention Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and of the defunct Uncle Tupelo in your reviews of the Band (also one of my favorite groups) and the Bottle Rockets (I haven't heard anything by them, but I know of Henneman from the first Wilco record). Just wondering what you thought of them...I think they're very good, but I think you demand a lot more musicianship than I do. Well...all the players in that band are pretty strong except for Tweedy, but I think he makes up for it with his songwriting knack.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Come on, Daddy!" Steve says, "To be honest I've only heard AM and I liked it fine. I don't think the band has as much personality as the Bottle Rockets (Tweedy's perspective is pretty generic indie-rocker, while Henneman is genuinely articulate), but it's quite pleasant. "

    24 Hours a Day
    Rating: 7
       What's the difference between a classic and a merely great album? Ah, that's what every critic is trying to find out. In the case of the Bottle Rockets, I think it's inspiration. With The Brooklyn Side, every track has a special spark, something unique in the lyrics or arrangement to make it stand out from the pack of country-rock tunes. On their follow-up, a number of songs have that glint of genius, but too many sound generic — well-played and tuneful for the most part, but run-of-the-mill.
       It's too bad about some of the songs, then, because the band is sharper than ever. Mark Ortmann's drumming is recorded with power and clarity, and he drives these songs home with great performances, like the slashing hi-hats on "Waiting on a Train" or the high-tuned snare fills of "Kit Kat Klock". And Brian Henneman and Tom Parr make their twin-guitar attack really count, with counterpoint riffs on "When I Was Dumb" (clever Mellencamp quote there) and "Perfect Far Away" and Parr's gentle rhythm parts laying down a nice bed for some pretty lead licks on "Dohack Joe" and Henneman's exploration of counter-intuitive yet musically sound modalities in "Things You Didn't Know."
       In a couple places, the band sounds like it hasn't quite thought through the arrangements, though: the verses of "Perfect Far Away" have a sloppy guitar attack, and "24 Hours a Day" doesn't do anything to offset its monotonous flanged riff.
       When the songwriting is hitting right, though, it's fabulous. The best number is "Waiting on a Train", with a chugging riff and a stream-of-memory lyric from a man stuck at a railroad crossing. The brief but powerful bridge, followed by just two bars of intense guitar wailing, is simply cathartic. Other high points include "Smokin' 100s Alone", with a lovely 12-string acoustic chiming under another accurate character sketch, and "Perfect Far Away" with its killer vocal hooks on the chorus (this would have been a Top 40 hit in 1982, no doubt) and mordantly self-deprecating lyrical conceit ("I wonder if she's real, I really couldn't say/But I don't want to know 'cause she's so perfect far away"). Tom Parr, whose "What More Can I Do?" was a moment of spooky clarity on The Brooklyn Side, gets two compositions, both winners. "Things You Didn't Know" has a surprisingly tender Henneman vocal, as he voices the hard-earned wisdom of the song and never pushes the gentle groove. Parr sings (without much range but with a lot of soft-spoken character) "Dohack Joe", another lightly swinging number that redeems its confusing lyrics with a playful two-finger piano line. "Rich Man" has a folk-song feel with it's odd tuning and "Richard Cory" themed lyric, and "Kit Kat Klock" unfortunately submerges a clever idea (a meditation on the life of a clock) under a strident guitar riff (although the moment when the guitars hit three accents followed by a drum fill is a highlight of the album).
       Otherwise, there are a couple kind-of-funny items ("Indianapolis", "Turn for the Worse") that betray a lack of inspiration, a bar-band anthem you've probably heard before ("Slo Tom's", which has no hook I can discern), and something I never thought I'd hear on a Bottle Rockets disc, a stupid song ("24 Hours a Day," with first-thought-out-of-my-mind lyrics and a completely generic tune).
       Well, you can't win 'em all, and if I didn't know The Brooklyn Side was so good, I'd be really impressed with this album. The band is hot, two-thirds of the songs are incredible, and the production is clean but not too fussy. A highly worthy item to add to your collection.

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