The Bottle Rockets are the best band from a town called Festus, this much we know. The group, seemingly poster boys for magazines like No Depression and other “alt.country” publications, are with a new lineup but still are able to deliver one solid album after another. The group originally released Leftovers back in 1998, but it has since been reissued. What you’ll find is very different than other re-releases—there are no hidden tracks, enhanced bonus material of talking backstage, footage of driving to the next gig or additional songs that weren’t worthy of being on it in the first place. What you get for your hard earned dollar are some tunes that you’ll remember six years after hearing them for the first time. The fact it’s only a half-hour should give the listener a clue that there is no fat on these tracks.
Produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (usually found to Steve Earle’s right when the troubadour is on the road), the album starts off with that brilliant combination of Celtic-tinted melodies à la the Pogues or the Tossers with a Southern twang component on “Get Down River”. The song has that swaying motion to it that makes you either fall off your chair or get completely zonked from raising your beer glasses high, which could result in later falling off your chair. The melody is the strong suit within as singer Brian Henneman and harmonies from mandolin player Joe Flood keep things on an adorable even keel. It’s as if they’ve been building for this moment for ages and finally have the chance to nail the song as it deserves to be. The moody “Dinner Train to Dutchtown” has a lot in common with the heyday of the Rolling Stones or Dylan as that bar band swagger winds itself around the vocals. Talking about a mean gumbo and putting one’s ear to the rail, the song breaks out momentarily but not with the pomp or grandeur one might expect.
“Skip’s Song” is more of a somber Southern ditty that is void of the fried rock guitar Lynyrd Skynyrd might ply thick riffs on top of. “Acid and madness / And nothing more”, the line goes as a Blue Rodeo-esque or Bobby Wiseman-like keyboard is played. It’s the type of song Wilco would do in its sleep but won’t touch with a ten-foot pole for years to come. Dreary almost to a fault, it rarely hurries its pace, maintaining its integrity from beginning to end. A hoedown of sorts follows during the rambling, hell-raising barroom sound oozing from “Coffee Monkey”, a title which I can attest to far too often.
The second half of the album begins with the run-of-the-mill performance found in “If Walls Could Talk”. Here the Bottle Rockets don’t sound like they’re really challenging themselves or the listener, instead creating a song that is basically an alt.country or honky tonk by numbers ditty. The “shut ups” which introduce a stronger yet hick-riddled “Financing His Romance” is quite impressive and toe-tapping. If you could picture Social Distortion lead singer Mike Ness minus one electric guitar, this might be a tune he’d lap up in a minute. The guitar solos are also quite outstanding here as they play off each other for a lengthy hell-raising rockabilly flavor. Perhaps the oddest part is how it basically is nipped near the end of its bud.
“My Own Cadillac” has little going for it initially as the blues, country, and rock are unsuccessfully fused. The vocals bring Jagger’s faux country to mind, although there are more guts used on this song. Rarely does it get off the ground, but after a couple of listens, one might find themselves taking to it more. “Chattanooga” ends this disc just as nice and smoothly as it started. The narrative gives way to chirps and an outdoors, country feeling. Almost a dirge but with comedic moments, the Bottle Rockets do what they do best on this song and on the album—creating tunes that make one want to hear what the next tune, album, or five to ten years will bring for them.
// Notes from the Road
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