In the late 1990s, four working class scrappers from Festus, Missouri completely hijacked my life. The Bottle Rockets looked like mangy mutts that skipped every class but shop to smoke cigs and swig beers in their high school parking lot. Behind the unkempt, drunken image were smart musicians that loved the classic rock they grew up with, as well as traditional country music, and seamlessly merged the genres. They were inspired by Cheap Trick and the Ramones and John Anderson and Neil Young. Lead singer Brian Henneman described the band as sounding like “John Prine fronting Crazy Horse.” By turns, they were melodic, sarcastic, empathetic, and ebullient. They could rock with a volcanic intensity or perform quiet folk based numbers. I’ve never loved a band more.
This week, the fine folks at Bloodshot Records, reissued the band’s first two albums and tossed in some bonus goodies as well. For a quick history lesson, the embryonic Rockets first played in the St. Louis area in the late 1980s, using the moniker Chicken Truck (a name inspired by the John Anderson composition). By the band’s own admission, they often were too loud and too lubricated for their own good. The group often crossed paths with the Southern Illinois roots act Uncle Tupelo and when Chicken Truck disbanded, Brian Henneman became a roadie/extra musician for Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s outfit. In this capacity, Henneman recorded a set of demos, available on this reissue, which resulted in his own record deal. He reformed Chicken Truck with a new bassist and the name was changed to the Bottle Rockets.
The band’s first album was recorded quickly for an independent label. Ace producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel was brought on board for The Brooklyn Side and gave the music a more dynamic edge. Taken as a whole, these two albums reflect a gutsy band that was unafraid to take on controversial subject matter, such as Confederate symbolism on “Wave That Flag” or hipster racism on “Idiot’s Revenge,” but their great subject was working class poverty. Years before anyone was discussing income inequality, the Bottle Rockets were chronicling a single mother in the heartbreakingly beautiful “Welfare Music” and commenting on the emotional impact of dead end jobs in “Sunday Sports.” Given the broken down “1000 Dollar Car” and the nonfunctional van in “Indianapolis,” no band has ever written better songs about transportation issues. The object of their affection was the woman that worked at the gas station.
However, the Bottle Rockets weren’t a humorless, political band by any stretch of the imagination. On the glorious Chuck Berry inspired romp “Take Me to the Bank,” Henneman proudly proclaims “Stick a rooster down my pants, I’d try to crow/I was ready for a night of rock ‘n’ roll.” While Tom Parr’s limitations as a guitarist were only surpassed by his vocal abilities, his recitation of a drunken domestic spat on “What More Can I Do?” never fails to crack me up. And let’s not forget the wondrous pop thrill of “Gravity Fails” or the updated Western swing of “Hey Moon.” If the Eagles had recorded “I Wanna Come Home” in the 1970s, everyone in America would know the words by heart.
In short, the Bottle Rockets were the grunge era Creedence Clearwater Revival. They packed their initial albums with one fantastic song after another and if they were too often steeped in economic realities that didn’t translate to the marketplace, that is simply popular music’s loss. This is a great American band that deserves to be heard.
Pick up this reissue today and learn why nothing beats a strike from the Brooklyn Side.
Grade – A.
better than you remember
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