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Back during the Great Alt.country Scare of the 1990s, the Bottle Rockets were stars. The Festus, Missouri quartet’s blue-collar roots rock quickly found favor with the No Depression audience, revered nearly as much as Uncle Tupelo and its offshoots – no coincidence, given that Rockets leader Brian Henneman roadied for Tupelo, performed on its revered March 6-10, 1992 and played lead guitar on the first Wilco album. With an aesthetic that rediscovered the guitar-powered dynamics of Southern rock even as it kept the honkytonk faith, the Bottle Rockets quickly carved out their own path in the burgeoning Americana scene, one that celebrated rock & roll power as much as whip-smart storytelling.
The band’s first two LPs, originally released by the long-gone ESD label and reissued this month by the venerable Bloodshot Records as a double-disk set, remain its best. First put out in 1992, The Bottle Rockets lays out the group’s agenda. The combo shows off its easy mastery of various roadhouse styles, from Guthriesque folk (“Early in the Morning”), melancholy folk rock (“Got What I Wanted”) and skillet-licking country (“Every Kinda Everything”) to brash rock & roll (“Gas Girl”), heartbroken grunge (“The Very Last Time”) and blistering cowpunk (“Rural Route”). Henneman deftly combines a quick-witted penchant for wordplay with a troubadour’s plain speaking, letting his hooks and the band’s thick guitars do the talking when words just aren’t enough. The record’s most celebrated tunes still sound the most relevant: the melancholy, melodic “Kerosene” takes on the tragic end of an impoverished family, while the crunching “Wave That Flag” takes Confederate wannabes to task with barely-contained rage.
The Bloodshot edition also includes a heap of demos, both Henneman solo and with Rockets predecessor Chicken Truck. Fans will enjoy hearing nascent versions of future Rockets staples “Get Down River,” “Indianapolis” and “Radar Gun,” as well as tunes left behind, like “White Trash” and “Wallflower.” Best of all: a spitfire early version of “Coffee Monkey” and a very different take on the self-titled LP’s “Manhattan Countryside.”
Recorded in the titular city with producer Eric Ambel, The Brooklyn Side consolidates the band’s strengths into a rip-roaring roots rock masterpiece. The record begins with the folk tune “Welfare Music,” another of the band’s now-patented examinations of American poverty that breaks from its compassion to take a swipe at the “angry fat man on the radio” who “wants to keep his taxes way down low.” The band cranks up the electricity immediately afterward, however, and rarely quiets back down. “Gravity Fails” crosses the Byrds with Crazy Horse for a soaring janglecrunch pop tune, while “Radar Gun” enhances its clueless protagonist’s arrogance with some roiling boogie. Henneman tries two different seduction raps with “I’ll Be Comin’ Around,” a ringing plea to a lonely friend, and “Take Me to the Bank,” a jumping mashnote to Chuck Berry licks. A trio of amp-frying anthems channel working class frustration – the rumbling “Stuck in a Rut” crunches, the sardonic “$1,000 Car” two-steps and the blazing “Sunday Sports” crashes and burns. The volume knob only comes down for “What More Can I Do,” a ballad sung from the POV of a wifebeater written and sung by guitarist Tom Parr, “Pot of Gold,” a tender love song, “Queen of the World,” a heartbroken C&W tune and “Idiot’s Prayer,” a country-rockin’ attack on fairweather liberals that sneeringly notes “She thinks I’m a redneck idiot because I talk with a twang.” A cursory listen to the Bottle Rockets makes it clear that nobody in this band is an idiot.
This version includes a mere handful of bonus cuts compared to The Bottle Rockets, but they’re welcome additions just the same. Besides a solo acoustic version of “Smokin’ 100s Alone,” which would appear on the next record 24 Hours a Day, and a crunchy live take on “Welfare Music,” the bonuses also include “Building Chryslers,” a blue collar anthem presented in acoustic form, the grungy two-stepper “Truck Drivin’ Man” and a gloriously sloppy concert run through the Premiers‘ “Farmer John,” also a favorite of Rockets influence Neil Young.
The band followed these two seminal Americana rockers with the nearly-as-great 24 Hours a Day and the surprisingly potent odds ‘n’ sods compilation Leftovers. For some reason it was never quite the same after that initial four-LP run, but Henneman and his latest company of ne’er-do-wells could make a creative comeback at any time. Besides, with The Bottle Rockets and The Brooklyn Side back in print, the band’s legacy as one of the best acts the Great Alt.Country Scare had to offer is assured.
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