[20 November 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There was a period in the mid-to-late ‘90s where it seemed like alt-country was going to save alt-rock from the drudgery of bands like Candlebox and Collective Soul, mediocre outfits that rushed to fill the void on rock radio after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994. My recollection of the time is that I was primarily listening to bands such as Wilco, Son Volt (and, of course, the band that begat those two, Uncle Tupelo), Whiskeytown, and Golden Smog. There were others, of course, such as the Jayhawks and Olds 97’s, and in this “others” pile you could include the Bottle Rockets. Said to be the Rolling Stones to Uncle Tupelo’s Beatles (though I think that comparison does a disservice to both the Bottle Rockets and Uncle Tupelo), the Bottle Rockets cropped up on my radar when 1994’s indie sophomore album, The Brooklyn Side got a reissue the following year by Atlantic Records, and a rather nice review in Rolling Stone as a result. I remember being in a record store, holding the Atlantic reissue in my hands, and then, for some reason, putting it back on the rack. And then, from there, I never really crossed paths with the Bottle Rockets, and it would be no surprise that I didn’t as the band were forced out of their major label contract after 1997’s 24 Hours a Day sold poorly and it hewed the route back into the indies, leading a rather quiet existence for all but the converted.
Of course, we know how the story turned out for alt-country. Wilco got weird, Son Volt went on hiatus, Ryan Adams became prolifically irrelevant, and pretty much every band of the genre disappeared. Or seemed to. At some point, I exchanged alt-country for the likes of Radiohead and Modest Mouse and indie rock began rearing its mighty head. Which makes this reissue of both the Bottle Rockets’ debut 1993 self-titled album and The Brooklyn Side all the more inviting: it’s a reminder for some, such as me, of a bygone time and an opportunity to see what the fuss regarding the band, as fleeting as it was, was all about. Both albums are remastered with a whopping 19 additional cuts of live (though only two songs’ worth), acoustic demo, and rarity material, including 1989 demos from the previous incarnation of the band, Chicken Truck. Granted, I do feel there’s something suspect in forcing buyer to purchase both the first two albums when I imagine the majority of listeners are or will be most curious about this reissue of The Brooklyn Side, so I suppose packaging both albums together is a means of drawing a larger spotlight on that first LP. Granted, it’s a welcome addition for reasons I’ll get into momentarily, but the Bottle Rockets are interesting in how tethered they were to Uncle Tupelo back in the day. Both Midwestern-based outfits, Bottle Rockets’ frontman Brian Henneman was friendly with Tupelo’s band members from the 1980s, and later worked as a roadie with the group, even playing on their lauded third record, March 16 – 20, 1992. And the reason that the Bottle Rockets got a record deal in the first place may land squarely in the Tupelo camp: that outfit’s manager, Tony Margherita, began secretly shopping a demo tape around during Henneman’s roadie days.
The appeal of the Bottle Rockets as a whole rests squarely in the vocals of Henneman. Rough, but not abrasively so, and even coming across as paradoxically smooth and velvety, Henneman sounds like a rather masculine version of the Breeders’/Pixies’ Kim Deal. But giving too much focus to the vocals would, naturally, do the music a disservice. The debut album, Bottle Rockets, is a short and punchy affair, with many songs running around the one- and two-minute marks. While the band is considered to be a Southern rock-oriented group, you can see the ramshackle nature of a band like the Replacements being just as much of an influence. And despite the Southern Rock overtures, the Bottle Rockets often come across as a version of Neil Young and Crazy Horse (and we all know of the dim view Young had of Southerners). The band comes out of the gate here supercharged: “Early in the Morning”, the first cut, is a tight but nimble banjo number with Henneman delightfully crooning the title as “Earle-lye in the Mor-nan.” It’s captivating and gets things to a fantastic start. But then “Gas Girl” comes along and smokes the balladry out of the water. A quick and ferocious barnburner, the song has the needle pushing E, and the whole thing is done in less than two minutes. It’s a real toe-tapper. And while the rest of the album tries to hold to the fabulous feeling of “Early in the Morning” and “Gas Girl”, it’s these two songs that hit the most. The rest of the album feels like a potpourri of different styles, from the acoustic guitar ballad “Kerosene” (with effective backing vocals provided by Uncle Tupelo’s Jay Farrar low down in the mix; Jeff Tweedy also apparently makes an appearance on the album, but I’ll be damned if I can hear him anywhere) to the rollicking old-timey instrumental “Bud Nanney Theme”.
Follow-up album The Brooklyn Side (a bowling term, despite the presence of pool balls on the original cover art) is said to be a more focused affair, but I think it’s a more streamlined one with a narrative arc of rural characters that loses its way a bit in the second half. While the album does boast the memorable opener “Welfare Music” (“She buys cassette tapes in the bargain bin / Loves Carlene Carter and Loretta Lynn,” sings Henneman, not only painting a portrait of country life, but also namechecking other artists, which he does elsewhere) and the hipster-kiss off “Idiot’s Revenge” (“Well, she likes Dinosaur Jr. / But she can’t tell you why / Says, “You like country music / Man, you deserve to die’”), the album falls off a tick after that into rote country ballads that clod along. That said, the front half of the album is quite memorable: “1000 Dollar Car” is a compelling ode to cars that have failed their users, the burning “Radar Gun” offers a harrowing tape recording sample from a detention centre, and “Sunday Sports” is a tremendous rocker for all of those armchair quarterbacks. The Brooklyn Side is, when it is firing on all cylinders, a much more elongated (the album runs about 52 minutes) and fist-waving concern than its predecessor. It’s probably on par with Bottle Rockets in that it has probably a very similar hit-and-miss ratio, but the band does feel as though they’re reaching a bit here at times in the back 40, and some of the charm of the first time around hasn’t really rubbed off onto the follow-up. Still, it’s worth investigation, and I’m kicking myself for not becoming acquainted with this album back when it was released (and re-released) nearly 20 years ago.
What this twofer does offer in spades is bonus material—and quality bonus material at that. Many of the acoustic demos, while boasting versions of songs that would show up on both proper albums included here, showcase another dimension of the band and could have worked well on their own as a standalone disc. Henneman’s humor is most evident on these outtakes, namely in song title “This Is What It Sounds Like When You’re Listening to Lindsey Buckingham and Thinking of Your Friend’s Girlfriend at the Same Time” and the track “Dead Dog Memories”, at the end of which he offers, “I kind of combined the sensitive with a dog song.” He then adds to an off-screen band member, “Have you done that, Jeffrey?” to much guffaws. Hilarious. This stuff also boasts brand name star power: Tweedy and Farrar appear on a smattering of these songs, and the live songs feature an “all-star jam” with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. And there’s a “moment of realization” where Henneman realizes on the live stuff that everyone on stage with him is wearing glasses. While humor or sarcasm can be found in his songs from the get-go (“Young Lovers in Town” practically drips with the latter), this bonus material just accentuates this nature, and, arguably, even elevates the quality of the proper albums being considered here. As well, the Chicken Truck cuts show Henneman’s work in a diamond in the rough capacity, and songs like “Indianapolis” and “Building Chryslers” are so alternately crystalline and startling, you have to wonder why they didn’t make the cut on the first two albums offered here.
All in all, Bottle Rockets and The Brooklyn Side offer a welcome addition to the alt-country pantheon and still hold up as generally great, if slightly flawed, albums. It’s the additional bells and whistles to be found on this collection that are just as worthy of investigation, and with 19 of them, there’s plenty to dig through for both the initiated and new to the group. It’s rare when the bonus material threatens to outstrip the original artifacts that saw the light of day, and that makes this two-CD set worthy of purchase for someone who loves country rock music right before the Christmas holiday buying season. Still, focusing on the demos and previously unreleased stuff would do both Bottle Rockets and The Brooklyn Side a disfavour. Both have moments of flash and grit, and yet showcase the more polished side of the band. While alt-country as a movement that threatened to overtake the mainstream may be well behind us, both discs underscore that the genre had momentum at the time, and there was a reason why: the songs of that era were strong and commanding. If you need any more proof of that, here would be as good as a place as any to start.