While alt-country visionaries like Jayhawk Gary Louris and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy hastily walk a gangplank toward the vast Sargasso Sea of classic rock, their lesser imitators are already lining up for the chance to take a stroll. Indeed, "Brand New Year" -- the latest from second-wave No Depression prophets the Bottle Rockets -- is, despite flourishes of Americana, yet another straight-ahead rock record.
I don't want to deny the primal powers of the Bottle Rockets, the four-piece pride of Festus, Mo. In these post-No Depression gold rush days, the band's strategy is to embrace rock templates scorned since the advent of grunge and the triumph of alternative. And the strategy pays off, to some extent. The "Brand New Year" title track sounds like Ozzy meets "Green"-era R.E.M. crossed with some old Irish lament -- all that's missing is the tin whistle. "Dead Dog Memories" obliquely echoes post-"White Album" Beatles and evokes prime Wilco ("Being There") rockers. "The Bar's on Fire" and "White Boy Blues" -- the latter skewering suburban white bluesmen -- could be the Band funked up and re-recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd in a shitty juke joint, and they've got the
Ronnie Van Zant growl down. But what's with the song titles? "Love Like a Truck" sounds like a Bob Seger number to these ears, but the song itself is really a punkabilly rave-up.
Amid the loud guitar groove and Creedence-style songwriting on the rest of the record, the Bottle Rockets also manage to show off a persistent sense of humor, by turns tongue in cheek or goofball. Bordering on benign Billy Bob Thornton-style Jethro buffoonery, "Brand New Year" is almost stoner screwball comedy, like Cheech and Chong flicks or "Alice's Restaurant" without the tragedy or grand generational statement. "Nancy Sinatra," co-written by Georgia Satellite Dan Baird and Rockets man Brian Henneman, is both a tribute to the '60s starlet and a pithy ode to a halcyon late-'60s childhood revisited through the prism of Plasticine pop iconography. And "Headed for the Ditch," sort of a hip-hop parody based on "Werewolves of London" guitar riffage, shouts out to Bruce Willis, Sammy Hagar, Sinatra, "The Hag" (Merle Haggard) and other icons.
The short and sweet songs of "Brand New Year" (all in the vicinity of three and four minutes) are invested with the sort of pop pageantry that passes for '90s pomp and grandeur. With the raging popularity of pimple pop and hip-hop, it's surprising that the Bottle Rockets would exchange one nearly dead music form
(trad country) for another (rock) just because they can. But as twang titans Wilco veer even further away from their roots and sound worse and worse, Henneman and friends are actually succeeding at the cross-genre transition. On "Brand New Year," the spirit of boogie lives on, and it ain't such a bad thing.