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The Bottle Rockets “South Broadway Athletic Club” Reviewed

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The Bottle Rockets busted out of Festus, Missouri in the 1990s, as one of the most important, if not commercially successful, bands of the alt-country movement. Their 1993 eponymous debut album sounded like a well written demo, but producer Eric Ambel delivered an instant classic with 1994’s The Brooklyn Side. They were as traditional as rock music could be with a lineage to the Chuck Berry sound, but their sweet spot was combining the lyrical sharpness of John Prine with the primal stomp of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse. Just so you wouldn’t get bored, their songs were as economical as Creedence Clearwater Revival and had the narrative power of traditional country music. As superb as they were, they had the misfortune of debuting at a time when mainstream radio cared little about traditional rock ‘n’ roll sounds and the internet transformed new music from a paid to a free product.

With their initial surge powered by youthful anger and alcohol, not a bad combination in your twenties by also not a fulfilling life strategy, it took the band some time to regain their footing after their initial major label commercial failures. The group’s lineup has been stable since 2005 and they have continued to record and often serve as Marshall Crenshaw’s backing unit. It’s been five years since their last studio album and South Broadway Athletic Club finds the band more mature and genuinely happy sounding than they’ve ever been.

While not every song on the South Broadway Athletic Club album is upbeat, the bright, ringing Rickenbacker guitar work often conveys a more positive tone than the lyrics. The album kicks off smartly with “Monday (Everytime I Turn Around),” which combines the pop hooks of the band’s “Gravity Fails” with the time marches on message of “Kit Kat Clock.” Their 1990’s composition “Building Chryslers” is revived (bringing with it the kind of Crazy Horse tribute they did on “Sunday Sports”). It’s a crunchy guitar tale about a factory worker more concerned about his paycheck than the caliber of his work. Elsewhere, the group displays their command of the Bakersfield sound on the instrumental break of “Dog” and they echo the slow paced, swamp rock of Tony Joe White on “Ship It On the Frisco.” (The latter number is about the small town fun of jumping on slow moving trains, the type of experience I can relate to with nearly fatal consequences).

Every song on this album works, whether the subject matter is working to avoid jealousy (“I Don’t Wanna Know”), the recuperative powers of mental shutdowns (“Big Fat Nuthin’”), or survival through personal adaptability (“Shape of a Wheel”). At its heart, it’s a record that reminds us that what we often view as minor joys (making your lover smile, the commitment of a devoted dog, making compromises to strengthen a relationship) are some of the most satisfying experiences in life.

In 2015, The Bottle Rockets have chronicled a maturity that doesn’t sound like a defeat or a compromise; it sounds like an unmitigated triumph.

Grade – A

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