Small Town, Big Album 

Bottle Rockets: Rock Their Roots

"A day in the life of Festus, Missouri," is the way the Bottle Rockets' Brian Henneman laughingly describes his band's second album, The Brooklyn Side. This quotidian panorama is of ceaseless interest to Henneman. "Festus is getting bigger than it used to be," he reflects. "It's got to be 10,000 people. It's practically a suburb. It's getting there, and they won't rest until it does." The Brooklyn Side, he laughs, is about "the way it works every single day down here. If you listen to the record 365 times, it would be just as boring as a year in the life of Festus."

It is a credit to both the residents of small towns like Festus and the talents of the Bottle Rockets' four members that The Brooklyn Side isn't boring at all. Eschewing both the overromanticism of many small-town chroniclers and the smirky contempt of others, Henneman and the Bottle Rockets embody the ambivalence any open-eyed product of rural America must radiate. "You hate it, you love it, you miss it, you can't get away from it," Henneman says.

While the band's first, eponymous album was full of impeccable country rock in a similar setting, The Brooklyn Side is much more focused. It's a gimlet-eyed song cycle on rural themes that encompasses harmless idiosyncrasies (watching "championship fishing on channel five") and some more lethal ones (like wife beating). The Brooklyn Side is about things like just how small small-town battles can be ("Radar Gun") and how hard it is for the inarticulate to articulate something like love ("Gravity Fails"). The Bottle Rockets aren't afraid to distance themselves critically from their fellows in the bloody "What More Can I Do?" and the desperate ennui of "Stuck in a Rut." But ultimately, first in the irresistible sing-along "I Wanna Come Home" and finally in the bar-ballad-with-a-twist "Queen of the World," they find themselves where they started and where they belong: back home.

A few years ago, Henneman, a veteran of a few other bands of his own, was the "mandolin-playin', van-drivin', roadyin', T-shirt-sellin' all-purpose guy" for Uncle Tupelo, the Missouri country-rock outfit much beloved in Chicago. Meanwhile, Tupelo's manager, Tony Margherita, liked the sound of the demo Henneman had recorded during the off-hours of a Tupelo recording session. "Tony was shipping it around without me knowing about it," Henneman says. "And one day he said, 'I got you a deal.' I said, 'You're shitting me.' So I had to put a band together."

For the Bottle Rockets, Henneman recruited guitarist Tom Parr and drummer Mark Ortmann, who go back with him to old Festus groups like Chicken Truck and the Blue Moons. Bassist Tom Ray is also in Poi Dog Pondering. Like Uncle Tupelo, the band have a fan base in Chicago: they're playing a show Friday at Schubas after an in-store at Tower, and will be back next month at FitzGerald's.

While Henneman's music and husky, shit-kicking drawl dominate the record, he had some important help from the other members of the band and even some outsiders. Parr contributes a key pair of songs in the middle of the album: "Take Me to the Bank"--a "Johnny B. Goode" rewrite that Parr constructed as a preteen--is a sexy rural not-so-still life; right on its heels is "What More Can I Do?," The Brooklyn Side's sober center, whose startling lyrics ("I'll be beating on you, honey, tonight for sure") are delivered by Parr with a chilling calm. "I don't know where the hell he made that one up from," Henneman confesses. "His thought processes are hard to understand. I don't know. Holy shit."

Most important is Scott Taylor, a songwriting partner and old friend of Henneman's who is now a schoolteacher in Missouri. Taylor is responsible for some of The Brooklyn Side's most felicitous lyrical moments. "He's never been in a band 'cause he can't play guitar," chuckles Henneman. "He writes these great lyrics and then tries to put them to songs, but they all sound the same. Most of the time I take 'em and put new music to them, or change the lines and phrasing to fit the music I have."

Out of this mishmash of writers, the band and its producer, Eric Ambel, formerly of the Del-Lords, put together a good old-fashioned concept album. "We made a decision to do that," Henneman says. "We had a bunch of songs, and we picked certain ones with the theme in mind. For the first one, we had to do the easiest ones we could do at the time, because Tom had only been in the band a week and we had to get it down in three days.

"For the second one we thought a lot about it. Eric Ambel helped a lot about that. He was totally into the concept of making an album."

The band backs up the concept with tunes. Take "Gravity Fails," the album's giddy pop confection. "That's something I'd never done before," Henneman says. "I don't even know how that came out. Scott said, 'Make it like a pop hit, make the music fit the lyrics.'" There's also friendly, loping ballads (Henneman's "I'll Be Comin' Around") and full-bore rockers, most notably the grinding "1000 Dollar Car" and the thunderous "Sunday Sports," with its priceless picture of the armchair sportsman (and a cameo by the bowling term that gives the album its title).

While a song like "Gravity Fails" deserves radio airplay, MTV and today's alternative rock stations don't take much to rurality. Henneman knows this, and doesn't much give a fuck, leveling a Scud missile at alternative hipsters in "Idiot's Revenge":

Well she likes Dinosaur Jr but she can't tell you why

She says if you like country music, man, you deserve to die

She's got that whacked-out hair, got them second-hand clothes

She's got an itemized list of everything she loathes.

Henneman notes that modern day roots rock--the classic-rock-and-country-inflected music played by his group and Uncle Tupelo--is conceptually different from the so-called rural rockers of the recent past. "Like the Long Ryders from a few years back," he says, "it always sounded like they were listening to someone's record collection: they didn't make a move that John Fogerty wouldn't have done. It all sounds so hip and it's all bullshit. There's no Marshall distortion-box freakout."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.

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