The Upshot: This is your brain on the beloved Americana godfathers, who serve up twisted tales of love ‘n’ twang… any questions?
BY JENNIFER KELLY
The Bottle Rockets are approaching silver anniversary status, with a discography that now reaches 11 albums and all the way back to the early 1990s, but they don’t seem to have mellowed much. These are country songs drunk on punk rock rebellion, twanging and punching with nothing but experience to show for a lifetime of practice.
Not that you can’t sense the presence of lifers in the taut, offhandedly excellent playing, which shifts from head-butting aggression to blues-y ruefulness. The same band plays the “My Dog” with goofy hayseed charm and “Ship It Off to Frisco” with mournful maturity. There’s something in the weathered, half-cocked assurance that tips you off, even though the songs couldn’t sound more different.
And, sure, the love songs on South Broadway Athletic Club have a lived in, multi-decade quality to them, the kind of romanticism that persists, doggedly, in the face of long co-existence, with all the bullshit burnt out of it. “A little bit hug and a little bit kissing, a little bit wondering what we’re missing,” Brian Hennemen hazards in “Big Lots of Love,” getting at the comfortable routines and fundamental ambiguities of long-term love as no 20-something home-taper could (yet).
But mostly you hear how good this band is when it warps its songs the hardest, turning hoary country clichés into something sharp and biting and real. Blistering “Building Chryslers” seems like it’s going to be a “Born in the USA” hymn to the proletariat, until you recognize that its union man, auto-maker (who himself drives a Toyota) is poised on a precipice. Without saying it, without making the song in any way sad, Henneman makes it crystal clear that “fast boat, the new house, the wife and the kid on the way” is all about to crumble. South Broadway Athletic Club#isn’t a political album, per se, but this song goes further towards explaining Trumpmania than any op-ed I’ve read so far.
Once you notice it, though, it starts to sink in gradually how weird and left-of-expectations these songs are, from the twisted I-trust-you-so-don’t-tell-me message of “Don’t Wanna Know” to the belligerent celebration of couch potato-hood of “Big Fat Nothing” to the surreal psychedelia of “Shape of a Wheel” which links the fall of Rome to the death of Elvis. There’s something sly and smart and incendiary about these songs, couched as they are in traditional sounds and starting out, at least, with traditional sentiments. They are not what they seem when you’re half listening, and they’ll blow up in your face if you’re not careful. But that’s okay and maybe the most interesting thing about South Broadway Athletic Club. Here’s an album from guys who have been making trouble for more than 20 years, and if they haven’t gotten better behaved with time, at least they’ve gotten better at it.
DOWNLOAD: “Building Chryslers” “My Dog”