Apropos of… something; I’m not sure what… New West Records has seen fit to dig through the archives and release some late ’90s albums from Missouri alt-country rockers the Bottle Rockets that were originally released on Doolittle Records. Getting the re-issue treatment are Leftovers (a 1998 b-side compilation) and Brand New Year, their 1999 effort. Odds are the target audience for these re-issues already bought the albums when they originally came out, and there are no bonus tracks or accompanying DVDs to entice repeat buying. But they do give fans occasion to reflect on the album’s place (and here I’m talking about Brand New Year; you’ll have to read the review of Leftovers elsewhere on this site) in the band’s canon.
Brand New Year is easily the Bottle Rockets’ angriest record. They had been dropped by Atlantic after one album (the underrated 24 Hours a Day) and were back in the alt-country ghetto with, well, every other alt-country band performing in 1999 that wasn’t named Wilco. Rather than try to replicate the friendly twang of their 1995 masterpiece The Brooklyn Side the band (at the time) — singer/guitarist Brian Henneman, guitarist Tom Parr, bassist Robert Kearns, and drummer Mart Ortmann — tweaked their sound for Brand New Year and morphed into a rollicking bar band. In retrospect, the sonic change was a smart move, as the band’s Southern boogie vibe matched up well with Henneman’s defiant, vitriolic lyrics. And even if you’re not a “lyrics listener”, you can definitely hear the fun guitarist Henneman and Parr are having slipsliding through greasy riffs on tracks like opener “Nancy Sinatra”. With Brand New Year, for the first time in their career, the Bottle Rockets were a rock band who liked country, not the other way around.
Did I mention that Brand New Year is an angry album? Henneman (as narrator, at least) is angry at himself (the dark “Alone in Bad Company”) and the music industry (“They want us to tune down and play the blues” he snarls on “Headed for the Ditch”, then imagines a run-in with Neil Young). But like all the Bottle Rockets’ albums, anger is tempered with biting humor. Henneman levels his sights at technology on the Y2K-fears-laced “Helpless”, where he proudly announces himself a Luddite (“I still wait to make phone calls / When I get out of my car”) and — carrying the old-school vibe a step further — the whole damn thing sounds like the best song Molly Hatchet never got around to writing. He’s also mad at rich white guys who buy beat-up guitars and think that they’ve earned the right to play the blues (“White Boy Blues”). Granted, that’s an extremely focused rage, but it speaks to the band’s frustration at the time. The band’s sense of humor never fails, and neither does their ability to craft a catchy tune; in terms of air guitar/blare-with-the-window-down rankings, Brand New Year is the Bottle Rockets’ best album.
The album’s only true misfire is the title track, which wallows in sludgy guitars, glacial pacing and purple lyrics (“Brand new year / Same old trouble / Stroke of midnight / Don’t change a thing”). Yet somehow the band saw fit to close the album with a reprise of the tune. Argh. Also, while I’m griping, I could live without the dopey “Sometimes Found” (“Sometimes potatoes / Sometimes rice / Sometimes naughty / Sometimes nice”) and the metaphor-stretching “Love Like a Truck” — though the latter tune does hearken back to the good-natured charm of their self-titled 1993 debut.
Brand New Year was more or less ignored when Doolittle released it back in ’99, and despite New West’s best efforts, it will likely receive the same fate here in 2004. It’s a damn shame, too, because while it’s not their best effort (again: go find The Brooklyn Side), it’s a fine time to discover a Southern Rock (by way of Missouri) album, now that bands like Kings of Leon and the Drive-By Truckers have made the genre safe for those of us who have never stepped foot in a Waffle Hut.