Disc x Tracks 1-13

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.

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I’ve had a rough year. I had two dogs die, my house has needed some expensive repairs, and my habit of closely following the news has turned into daily exposure to toxic waste. We all crave simple comforts in difficult times, and I’ve fallen back into an old habit: when I’m in the mood to read comforting trash, I reach for Tom Clancy. And after the current bender, I think we should talk about him a little.

Uh, Dad, you’re not mad, are you?

Right now, through time and space, I can hear the question you’re asking yourself: why do I care about the work of some hack writer of right-wing airport trash who’s been dead for a decade? And that’s a good question, one I’ve been wrestling with inside my head for a while now. I have a few solid answers: first, because the work of said dead right-wing hack writer really does provide a perfect encapsulation of one of the dominant forces in our dyspeptic, sliding-through-disasters-towards-even-greater-disasters political system, and to understand that is to understand another corner of the current ongoing shitshow. Tom Clancy’s books are by, of, and for Boomer Dads, and if understanding the mind of the Boomer Dad isn’t sufficient to understanding what the hell is happening in this country, I think it’s at least necessary.

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Disc 1 Track 13

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.

Disc 1 Track 12

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 thing here.

Disc 1 Track 11

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.

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Disc 1 Track 10

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Disc 1 Track 9

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.

Disc 1 Track 8

“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.

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Disc 1 track 7

To this point, a full 50% of the songs on The Bottle Rockets have been about being horny, either in a silly or a desperate fashion. “Got What I Wanted” flips the script, checking in on a man glumly realizing what all these hormones have gotten him; this song could easily be the narrator of “Trailer Mama” waking up the next morning hung over and full of regret.

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Disc 1 Track 6

And then, after the escalating heaviness of “Wave That Flag” and “Kerosene,” the Bottle Rockets get silly. Really silly. Silly enough to make “Gas Girl” sound like a sober meditation on human frailty.

“Every Kinda Everything” opens with a ridiculous extended metaphor about cars:

Well I know we’re different and this might sound heavy
But I’m thinking that I’m a Ford and baby you’re a Chevy
That’s ok, I can appreciate any good car

Can’t you tell by the way I’ve been bumping your bumper
That I’m following close, trying to be your lover
Ain’t gonna hurt ya, honey that’s what a bumper’s for

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