I’ve said before in this series that one of the enduring questions with the Bottle Rockets is “is Henneman singing from his own point of view, or voicing a character?” And that, if it’s his own POV, the stretch when the songs for the Rockets’ first two albums were written must have been a really weird time in his life.
Because once again, “I’ll Be Comin’ Around” is essentially a song about being horny; the speaker’s propositioning someone who’s partnered up, and saying that he is 1000% OK with any relationship configuration that gets him in the (back) door. I was going to reproduce a couple of verses, but it turns out that these are in fact *all* of the words to the song:
If he ever changes him mind Thinks of leaving you behind Or if you just want something more When he steps out the front door
I’ll be coming around Knocking your backdoor down I’ll be coming around Knocking your back door down
If he ever breaks your heart Decides he wants to make a new start Or if you just want to be vile When he steps out for awhile
The speaker’s ready to get together if the target’s partner strays, or is up for whatever “if you just want to be vile.”
The weird thing is that this song that exists in the shadow of at least two different flavors of infidelity (one of them self-described as “vile”) somehow comes across as really wholesome, partly on the basis of Henneman’s gleeful deliver and partly on the basis of the relentlessly cheerful major-key musical arrangement. Wordless sections dominate vocal sections, including a repeated bridge that ticks along like a cheerful machine.
The tension makes the song; if the Rockets are usually very good at pairing form and content, setting them at odds here kicks the song into an interesting psychological space and makes you somehow low-key root for the vile homewrecker. There’s a lot of infidelity in country music, but it isn’t usually this cheerful.
The extent to which “knocking your back door down” is a euphemism is, I guess, up to the filthy-mindedness of a particular listener.
If The Brooklyn Side is essentially The Bottle Rockets with somewhat better production values, the pattern holds here. Contemplative acoustic opener gives way to big electric bar-band rocker (just a touch more polished this time).
“Gravity Fails” (note that Spotify misnames the song as “Gravity Falls,” which I’ll take as emblematic of the general way the Bottle Rockets don’t get the respect they deserve) is not a great song, in the sense that it doesn’t have anything profound to say about the human condition, but it’s a lot of fun and it rocks the house. As is often the case, the Bottle Rockets are here to examine the mind of a man trapped by his own desire to wander. It doesn’t quite have the chainsaw guitar of “Gas Girl,” its counterpart on the first album, but it’s got a driving beat and Henneman sells a lot of very convincing urgency with his voice. You know you’re an expert as using your voice to its full effect when you can deliver
Baby I’m saying please, please, please Down on my baby blue blue jeans Maybe it’s something in my genes Maybe it’s something in my jeans
and have it land. A quatrain like that could be dire in the hands of a novice, but that last line still brings a surprised smile to my face every time I hear it, after nearly 30 years of listening to this album.
Uncharacteristically, it opens with an instrumental riff that the song returns to periodically, establishing the mood of minor-key urgency that dominates; there’s a tension between this and the bright major-key shimmer of Henneman’s guitar solo in the middle. I’m not sure exactly what the thought process behind this must have been, but it gives the song texture.
Again, not one of the great songs of all time, but a really enjoyable little gem showing how fun the Bottle Rockets could be in their standard Best Possible Bar Band mode.
The Brooklyn Side sounds
exactly like what it is: a natural continuation of The Bottle Rockets, but with more budget to spend on studio time
and better gear. Recorded at Coyote Recording Studio in Brooklyn (the album’s
title appears to come from the climactic line of “Sunday Sports,” but there’s
kind of a chicken-and-egg question lurking here) in 1994, Brooklyn catches the band in the same form as their first album,
just a bit more polished and better produced. The collection of demos on the
combined reissue makes it sound like many of the songs come from the same
creative burst that populated the first album.
To make one logistical element clear: I haven’t been able to nail down the order of events in 1994 involving the recording of Wilco’s A.M. and the Bottle Rockets’ The Brooklyn Side. I know they both happened in 1994, and I know that the A.M. sessions ran roughly from June through August, and that the Brooklyn Side sessions happened some time that year; could have been before, could have been after. I’m choosing to wedge A.M. in between the first two Bottle Rockets albums, but that might not be accurate, and certainly doesn’t reflect the release order.
Anyway: for Bottle Rockets fans, A.M. represents a portal to an alternate universe that briefly opened in 1994. Uncle Tupelo had broken up, with most of the 1994 lineup of the band staying clustered around Jeff Tweedy. To get the new enterprise off the ground, Tweedy reached out to his friend and former almost-bandmate Henneman to play lead guitar on Wilco’s first effort as the band found its feet. Henneman stepped in and left his mark all over the record.
If The Bottle Rockets
sags on its back half, it at least ends on a strong, if depressing, note. “The
Lonely Cowboy” is the Rockets in full short-stories-about-small-towns mode, a
character study about a man who feels like he’s living in the wrong time.
There’s an almost rider-on-horseback swagger to the song, but that can’t really
hide the crushing desperation of phrases like
Sometimes he goes down to the local theatre And watches pale riders on the movie screen At times it seems so unbearable and unfair He just falls apart at the seams
This is strong stuff. It’s a rare Bottle Rockets song
written by other members of the band (Ortmann and Parr), but it fits in
seamlessly with the rest of the band’s work, and Henneman fully inhabits the
character he’s singing about. If the Rockets’ small-town mopers can drag
sometimes, this one works really well because it’s so specific; we’re hearing
details about the suffering and interior life of a particular, well-drawn
person, and that makes all the difference (contrast this with the universal
dreariness of songs that just focus at the town or even regional level and say “this
sucks”). No instrumental pyrotechnics on this one, no flashy drums or guitars,
just raw competence that conveys weariness without being wearisome. A damn good
end to a damn good album.
The combined version of The
Bottle Rockets and The Brooklyn Side currently
available on Spotify contains some bonus tracks, but I’ll be setting those
aside for this project, since they’re mostly demos of songs that have already
been covered or will eventually be covered. So that’s it for The Bottle
Rockets. But it’s not time for The
Brooklyn Side quite yet; first, watch for a longer entry about another
high-profile Henneman project that was going down at about the same time.
A light country song, so close to being disposable that I
nearly forgot to do an entry for it. Henneman’s lovelorn narrator addresses the
moon on the subject of the end of a relationship; they guy from “Got What I
Wanted” had a few drinks and went outside to talk to the moon.
The instrumentation is crisp and the harmonies are nice, but
this is fundamentally just the Bottle Rockets in “unusually good bar band”
mode. A very nice John Keane pedal steel part is pretty much the only special
Going back to listen to the song for this piece, I was surprised how fast and produced it is. Not that, in an absolute sense, it’s very much of either; but the version of it that exists in my memory is just Henneman’s voice and guitar creeping along at a carefully-controlled tension-inducing glacial pace. Those are the parts that stick with the memory, at least for me. The surrounding material that enables the effect just got edited away.
It’s not that the back half of The Bottle Rockets is bad by any stretch; it’s just inessential.
And so, “Rural Route,” a bar-band rave-up so similar in form and content to “Manhattan
Countryside” that it once again could be a continuation of the same song. Maybe
there’s an argument to be made that proximity strengthens the two songs; “Manhattan
Countryside” is a guy getting fed up with what’s happening in his town, and “Rural
Route” is him convincing himself to leave.
Of course, the two aren’t one extended song. For one thing, Route is, for the first time we’ve encountered, a Bottle Rockets song not written by Brian Henneman. Instead, Route is the handiwork of Robert Parr, brother of the Brockets’ rhythm guitarist. If the lyrics aren’t as witty as a typical Henneman joint, their description of rural disillusionment is very much in the Henneman wheelhouse (it strikes me now that the two dominant themes of this album are lust and rural disillusionment, sometimes at the same time), and he sings it as fervently as one of his own.
But really, there’s not much here. A great lead guitar part, more fun drum work by Ortmann, and some sentiments we’ve heard before. This runs into the same problem Chad and I discovered on We’ve Been Had as we got mired in the repetitive Uncle Tupelo songs on the back half of Still Feel Gone; there does come a point where even the most intensely-sung complaints about small-town ennui become just the same old thing.
“Manhattan Countryside” is a straightforward bar-band rocker, an extended cry from Henneman’s heart against small-town sprawl. It’s a good song but not a great one, missing some of the weight that elevates the standouts on the first half of the album. The song seems to acknowledge its own minor-work status, hustling on and off the stage in the space of two minutes.