Few mourned the passing of the faddish wing of “alternative country”; it only had the gas for a short ride out of town, appropriating old licks that struck the uninitiated as novelties, piling on hickster metaphors from someone else’s life. That’s never been the style for the Bottle Rockets, though. From the megalopolis of Festus, Missouri, this band—fronted by onetime Uncle Tupelo roadie Brian Henneman—has brought brains, chops, and firsthand experience to provocative songs of working-class men and women, semi-rural division, for 10 years now.
In “Baggage Claim” on their new Blue Sky, steel swells while slide guitar floats on top, then there’s an acoustic strum right out of country radio—not buried country radio of 30 or 50 years back, so safe to find cool, but today’s. It’s not one of those tough, straightforwardly political screamers like “Kerosene,” for which this outfit first got semi-famous; it’s a love song, seemingly sentimental—until closer inspection reveals that, with typical BRox cheek, it dares to use post-9-11 airline insecurity as a metaphor for the unsure status of one man and one woman.
So the political’s taken personal—a “bring it home” trick of the best country songwriters that reverses the rock ‘n’ roll model. It’s a tactic seen, too, in Blue Sky‘s opener, “Lucky Break,” one more in a line of indelible tragicomic BRox micro-portraits of lower-middle-class damage, pain, aspirations, and conniving in the face of lousy choices. This one’s a tale of a man for whom receiving worker’s comp after a factory accident is the best “dream come true” he can imagine.
Henneman, Robert Kearns, and Mark Ortmann (a guitar-bass-drum trio here, minus the usual additional guitar lead), turn up more Southern-rock-influenced electric blues than ever before on their seventh CD—plus hard country, folk balladry, even a bit of sunny pop. And they know when to use them: tear-in-your-beer honky-tonk to mark Henneman’s recently departed parents’ ghostly presence in his house; “Secret Agent Man”-style rock for overcoming modern labor-sector blues (“Man of Constant Anxiety”); Tom T. Hall-style patter to find the sweet spot where this band’s kind of men and women manage to make conversation (somewhere between “smallmouth bass” and “honey, tell me what is wrong”). That the Bottle Rockets are the lasting survivor of that alt-country scare is a surprise—but only to the extent that the right thing happening, after all, surprises.