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Album Review: Bottle Rockets/The Brooklyn Side [Reissue] by The Bottle Rockets
Exceptionally Good, Based on 7 Critics
Exclaim - 90 Based on rating 9/10
It's been 20 years since alt-country's golden age, and Wilco fans born around that time might be hard pressed to imagine their heroes back then grinding out CCR covers in small bars. But long before the arrival of Nels Cline's sophistication, the sound of early Wilco — and late period Uncle Tupelo — was built around the gutsy guitar heroics of Brian Henneman. For that alone he deserves to be recognized as alt-country's most underrated hero, but when he finally got the chance to prove himself as a singer-songwriter with the Bottle Rockets he added a caustic counterpoint to the typically more earnest work of alt-country's most prominent names.
Blue-collar blast: Roots-rock masterpieces, back in print…The Jayhawks hewed closest to Gram Parsons’ cosmic vision. Uncle Tupelo were visionaries themselves. But Festus, Missouri quartet Bottle Rockets not only held the moral, working-class compass of the ’90s alt.country wave, they – with their ferocious Skynryd-meets-Crazy Horse thunder – rocked harder than the whole lot.
In many respects, the Bottle Rockets were victims of bad timing; when they arrived on the scene with their first album in 1993, many alt-country fans were looking for music that was serious and "said something," and the band's defiant hard rock moves and Lynyrd Skynyrd influences didn't give them a very high cool rating, despite the undeniable strength of their songwriting and the endorsement of alt-country icons Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. The critical respect and commercial success the Drive-By Truckers would earn after 2001's Southern Rock Opera was the victory the Bottle Rockets should have claimed, confirming there was an audience ready for their blue collar smarts and rowdy, guitar-fueled attack, though that wasn't clear until after the BoRox's major-label deal fizzled out. Bloodshot Records has reissued the Bottle Rockets' first two albums in a deluxe package, and two decades on, it's hard to imagine how a band this good (and accessible) didn't earn more than a loyal cult following on the strength of these records.
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.
Reading the star testimonies in the booklet that accompanies this reissue of the first two albums from Missouri's Bottle Rockets, you'd believe they had been the single most important American band since the Velvet Underground, and possibly the only band ever to sing about ordinary lives of struggle. Actually listening to the discs suggests the booklet rather overstates the case, but they still reveal a terrific, propulsive band, trying to combine Hank Williams, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bruce Springsteen and Thin Lizzy (it's hard to believe Drive-By Truckers weren't playing close attention). The second album, 1994's The Brooklyn Side, is the better – with its empathetic portraits of unlikely subjects: cops who enjoy catching speeders (Radar Gun), men whose greatest pleasure is watching sport on TV in their underwear (Sunday Sports) or a single mother who listens to country cassettes (Welfare Music).
What sneaky musical misanthrope came along behind our backs and took the first two pivotal Bottle Rockets albums out of print? The answer to that rhetorical question isn’t important, but it remains a conundrum how a few of the finest and most influential alt-country releases from the ’90s were unceremoniously pulled from circulation. Neither 1993’s Bottle Rockets debut nor The Brooklyn Side follow-up a year later were commercially successful. But the musicians who were exposed to them and borrowed attitude, songwriting or musical insight are some of the more recognizable in the alt-country genre.
It’s easy to overlook the socio-political backdrop that fueled a lot of the best country rock of the ‘90s. The genre’s heyday occurred on Bill Clinton’s watch, and through the prism of the Bush/Cheney years afterward is often remembered as a liberal paradise. But it wasn’t a progressive’s idyll by a long shot. Clinton the Liberal dismantled the safety net in his own way, legitimizing the very idea that it was broken in the first place.