In its best songs, The Bottle Rockets summon a sense of dark nostalgia often set within remote rural settings.
Such is the make-up of Way It Used To Be, one of the highlights from the veteran Festus, Missouri rockers’ recent Lean Forward album. The title alone spells trouble as the story unfolds of a domestic split and a resilience to (or complete lack of acceptance of) the resulting change that must come with it. It’s a bit of a head game song, too, as isolation sets in along with a growing hint of paranoia.
“The things that bother me are the things no one can see,” sings Bottle Rockets singer, co-guitarist and chief songsmith Brian Henneman over a typically lean whiplash of ‘70s style guitar riffs and crisp percussive hooks.
Even more sobering is Kid Next Door, a remembrance of a football playing, hip-hop loving neighborhood youth, liked and celebrated by the community, who goes off to war but never returns (“I watched him grow, I watched him go; now he ain’t coming home no more”). All of that is then weighed against the ultimate question posed by war, especially to the rural communities that send so many soldiers into conflicts far removed from their home – did such a death have any purposeful effect on the battle’s outcome? (“Did it change the bottom line? We keep on living while we keep on dying.”)
Tunes like that are big pay offs for the Bottle Rockets (Henneman, longtime drummer Mark Ortmann, guitarist John Horton and bassist Keith Voegele). The rest of their music is just as rural in scope, although with few exceptions (the merry mix of mandolin and fiddle on the blue collar but green-savvy Get on the Bus is a rare example), the songs steer clear of what is conventionally viewed as country. The album’s – and indeed the band’s – overall mood is actually quite cheery – faithful, even.
On the album opening, The Long Way (co-written by Ortmann and Henneman), road travels through the wide open West (no doubt inspired by the band’s mammoth touring schedules) yield an unexpected affirmation. “The long way isn’t the wrong way and a wrong turn isn’t the end,” sings Henneman. “If it’s understood, maybe something good is coming at you ‘round the bend.”
And for a reflection of the celebratory, elemental rock ‘n’ roll charm The Bottle Rockets are perhaps best known for, check out the riotous Bo Diddley drive that propels Nothin’ but a Driver.
Not doubt having Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, who produced the breakthough albums The Brooklyn Side and 24 Hours a Day for The Bottle Rockets in the ‘90s back in the producer’s chair helps give Lean Forward such urgency. But Henneman and the Bottle Rockets have been on a roll of late. Its 2006 album Zoysia was one of the band’s strongest efforts. Lean Forward simply moves on from there with another expert scrapbook of rural Midwestern snapshots.
Some are uplifting. Others carry more pensive memories. All possess a vivid, emotive and very human immediacy. And isn’t that what always makes up great rock ‘n’ roll?
The Bottle Rockets with Grayson Capps and The Stumpknockers perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Phoenix Hill Tavern, 644 Baxter Ave. in Louisville. Tickets are $12. Call (502) 636-0405 or go to www.ticketweb.com