- The Bottle Rockets
- The Bottle Rockets & The Brooklyn Side – Deluxe Reissue
Yeah, twenty years.
The Bottle Rockets have been doling out the crunchy twang; the twangy crunch; the tug-at-your-heart, kick-you-in-the-ass, and make-you-think sorta lyrics (the kind that undermined their best efforts to make you think they’re just a bunch of simple good ol’ boys) for twenty years now, believe it or not. Bloodshot Records is celebrating this milestone with a two-CD package that offers remastered versions of their first two albums – their self-titled debut and The Brooklyn Side – along with some great bonus material.
Now, if you already know and love The Bottle Rockets, then you undoubtedly own the original versions of these albums and know how brilliant they were/are. (And if you don’t, I’ll get to you in a moment.) If I were going to make a case for veteran fans laying hands to this new set from Bloodshot, I’d toss two thoughts your way.
The first is Eric Ambel’s name. That’s right – I’m talking Eric Roscoe Ambel: the crazy-assed guitar picker/producer who is like the George Martin of Americana/alt-country/headneck/whatever-you-want-to-call-it music when he’s not playing with the Del-Lords or the Yayhoos or Roscoe’s Gang or whatever other sonic gumbo he’s got simmering in his Brooklyn, NY studio. If you’re a longtime Rockets follower, then you already know that Ambel’s been an honorary band member since he produced The Brooklyn Side in 1994. The killer bee news is that ol’ Roscoe (along with sidekick Mario Viele) was in charge of the “audio archival transfers and coordination” of this package at his Cowboy Technical Services – the remastered original albums and enough bonus tracks to flatten the rear springs of a halfway-decent Ford F-250. (The actual remastering was done by Brooklynite Paul Gold – no stranger himself to the world of glowing tubes, growling speakers, and crazily-bent doublestops.)
The second thing that you veteran Rocketeers should know about is the aforementioned treasure trove of bonus tracks spread over these two discs. You being you, you already knew that prior to forming the Bottle Rockets, frontman Brian Henneman was the roadie/guitar tech/auxiliary guitar warrior for Uncle Tupelo. On Disc One of the reissue package, we find four demos that Henneman recorded during some extra minutes left over at the end of the sessions for Tupelo’s Still Feel Gone album. That would be a couple of guys named Tweedy and Farrar vocalizing behind Henneman on tunes like “Indianapolis”, a classic tale of a band van broke down on the road too far from anywhere that would feel good:
Sittin’ in this bar is gettin’ more than I can stand
If I could catch a ride I really think I’d ditch this band
Who knows what this repair’ll cost, I’m scared to spend a dime
I’ll puke if that jukebox plays John Cougar one more time
Can’t go west, can’t go east
I’m stuck in Indianapolis
With a fuel pump that’s deceased
Along with the Uncle Tupelo collaborations (which were employed by Tupelo manager Tony Margherita to land Henneman his own recording contract), there are nuggets of scorched brimstone from Chicken Truck, the yeeeeee-haaaaaaaa thrashblues band that included Henneman, Rocket’s drummer Mark Ortmann and original guitarist Tom Parr. (Check out the six-minutes-plus slow skin blister of “Brand New Year” – total unfettered Crazy Horse-style lumbering madness.)
There’s also plenty of bonus Bottle Rockets, of course: acoustic demos, unplugged radio performances, an unreleased track from The Brooklyn Side, and a couple of vintage live-as-live-gets tunes from NY’s Mercury Lounge in May 1994.
So there’s all that, plus a booklet that includes essays and reflections on the Rockets’ first twenty years from everyone from noted rock scribe Dave Marsh to fellow twangers Steve Earle, Marshall Crenshaw, and Patterson Hood to Widespread Panic co-conspirator John Keane, who produced The Bottle Rockets’ self titled debut album back in 1993.
The bottom line: I can look you long-timers in the eye and tell you to trade in your old copies of The Bottle Rockets and The Brooklyn Side (or pass them along to someone who needs some initiating) and lay hands to this fine bundle of Rocketness.
Now, for those of you who don’t already have a Bottle Rockets collection brewing, this is a no-brainer. Discovering the music on the original albums is guaranteed to have you asking yourself, “What ails me? Moreover, what ails the rest of the world? Why don’t The Bottle Rockets rule the planet?” Good question – and one best saved to be answered another day (if it can be answered at all).
In the meantime, dig the facts as recorded on these discs: The Bottle Rockets found Henneman and his hastily-assembled band (after Brian got the call from Tony Margherita that he had a recording contract, he decided a band would be a handy thing) tumbling into John Keane’s studio after battling their way through a freak Georgia snowstorm. Keane was expecting “one guy with a banjo and a harmonica” – what he got was “a van full of electric guitars, amps, and long-haired musician types.” There was a day and a half left of the time Keane had slotted for recording a solo Henneman; the resulting 13 cuts are nothing short of amazing.
“Early In The Morning” gives you an idea of what the expected “one guy with a banjo” sessions might’ve sounded like, but from then on, it’s full-fledged Rockets all the way. There are tunes that sound like they should’ve been sung over a CB mic (“Every Kinda Thing”, “Hey Moon”); there are moments that make use of unique arrangements and a drinking-and-thinking man’s insight to do the deed (check out Ortmann’s sparse-but-perfect drum work behind the head-hang of “Got What I Wanted”); hair-on-the-arm-raising reportage and reflection (“Kerosene”); there are moments of twangorama heaven (“Manhattan Countryside”, “Bud Nannery Theme”); tractor punkness (“Rural Route”); 4×4-and-PBR anthems (“Wave That Flag”); and just plain damn fine rock ‘n’ roll (“Gas Girl”, “Trailer Mama”).
The Bottle Rockets would’ve been a killer debut album by anyone’s standards. The fact that it was laid down in a matter of hours by an exhausted, half-drunk band who were still getting to know each other (let alone the songs) is something else altogether. John Keane says it best in his liner notes: “Damn if they didn’t pull it off.”
1994’s The Brooklyn Side, as noted earlier, was the band’s first collaboration with Roscoe Ambel – a relationship that still continues today. Ambel’s knack for guiding and arranging while remaining true to an artist’s sound and vibe is showcased here. There are gotcha-the-first-time-through hooks galore in tunes such as “Gravity Falls”, “I Wanna Come Home”, and “I’ll be Comin’ Around”, but the sing-along ability never takes away from the Rockets’ rawness.
And who else could slam/crash their way straight-faced through a tune about watching championship fishing shows and stock car racing on TV (“Sunday sports in his boxer shorts”)? Or pull off three-minutes-and-thirty-three-seconds’-worth of country honk (“Young Lovers In Town”) that deserves a spot alongside of the Stone’s “Sweet Virginia” or “Faraway Eyes” in the Drawl Hall O’ Fame – with that same straight face? There’s insight that you can live by (“1000 Dollar Car”); Chuck Berry-style rawk that you can set your watch by (“Take Me To The Bank”); and more of that wickedly smart (and smartass) lyric writing backed by all you ever need to know about geetar pickin’ (“Idiot’s Revenge”). And, sadly, there’s nothing dated about the Rockets’ classic “Welfare Music” nearly two decades later.
Oh, they were good – and they still are. There’s a new Bottle Rockets album in the works and, by the sounds of the fresh tunes they’ve been trying out live of late, Henneman and company have only gotten better with age – maintaining an edge that many spend twenty years seeking but never find.
In the meantime, burrow into this reissue package. Newcomer or longtimer – it’ll stick a rooster down your pants. (And in the Bottle Rockets’ world, that’s a hellish good time.)
Brian Robbins stands pondering a rooster over at www.brian-robbins.com