Lazy Boy

The Bottle Rockets practice the art of not trying hard

The Bottle Rockets are some lazy bastards.

Folks could be forgiven for assuming that the Festus, Missouri, natives no longer constitute a functioning rock 'n' roll band. It's been more than two years since the Bottle Rockets' last album was released--and almost as long since the group has toured. Frontman Brian Henneman has passed through the Twin Cities twice in recent months, but he was traveling solo both times. The last I recall seeing the band's name in print, Henneman was keeping the wolf from the door by working at a T-shirt factory.

So when Henneman and guitarist Tom Parr started kicking around the idea of recording a Doug Sahm tribute album last spring, the band embraced the concept as a less taxing alternative to actually creating some original material. "Ooh boy, we only had like seven songs written," says Henneman, speaking by phone from his home in St. Louis. "We didn't even have enough shit to make an album."

Not the hardest-working band in show business: The Bottle Rockets
Bob Reuter
Not the hardest-working band in show business: The Bottle Rockets

The Bottle Rockets initially envisioned recruiting other artists to collaborate on the Sahm tribute, but they quickly soured on the idea after contemplating the amount of work it would entail. Henneman adds: "The fact that we had such a low profile ourselves at the time that nobody would even listen to us" also might have factored in the decision. What they came up with instead is Songs of Sahm (Bloodshot), a Bottle Rockets-only homage to the late redneck-hippy-Tex-Mex musician who first came to national prominence in the mid-Sixties fronting the faux British-invasion band the Sir Douglas Quintet.

For the most part, Henneman and Co. choose imitation over inspiration, even echoing Sahm's cheesy spoken interludes. Which is probably just as well: Songs like "Lawd, I'm Just a Country Boy in This Great Big Freaky City" don't exactly cry out for artistic interpretation. The songs are stripped down and straightened out, with the horn flourishes that often adorned Sahm's work largely abandoned. What's left is a groovy stew of meat-and-potatoes guitar-centric rock 'n' roll.

Laziness has always served the Bottle Rockets well. The band's first two albums--1993's self-titled debut and 1994's The Brooklyn Side--sound as if they were recorded in between bong hits and Budweisers in the back of an abandoned Festus gas station. Those early songs include paeans to sleeping late ("Early in the Morning"), watching TV in your underwear ("Sunday Sports"), and driving around aimlessly with your main squeeze ("Young Lovers in Town"). Easy to overlook through the slacker smokescreen are Henneman's considerable songwriting chops. His tales of small-town mating rituals and penniless losers, coupled with the occasional lefty political dig, capture the wonderfully humdrum details of day-to-day life in Nowheresville, USA. Anyone who grew up in a town of less than 50,000 will recognize the stench of boredom and despair with a rearview-mirror pang of nostalgia. The musical mix of thunder and twang leaves little doubt as to why Henneman's first band was named Waylon Van Halen and the Ernest Tubbadours.

After the Bottle Rockets' first two albums transformed them into alt-country icons, Atlantic Records came calling. The ill-fated relationship was aborted after just one album, 24 Hours a Day, which featured some of the band's best--and worst--work yet. A subsequent dalliance with Doolittle Records fared no better. Brand New Year, released in 1999, drowned in so much sonic bombast that one wondered if the band was bitter at ever being mentioned in the same sentence as Uncle Tupelo.

Henneman says that if he learned anything from the label-hopping journey, it's that he was premature in running down Atlantic Records. "They were like the loving arms of mother compared to Doolittle," he quips.

Henneman predicts that--"knock on fake-wood paneling"--by this time next year the band will have cobbled together enough songs for an album of original material. For now, the Bottle Rockets will hit the road, with a live show featuring equal parts Songs of Sahm and original tunes.

"Ooh boy, it's kind of getting to the stage where if we don't get out now, I'm gonna have to go back to the T-shirt shop," Henneman says. "I've been off long enough that things are getting pretty thin around here."

Laziness also has its perils.

 
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