The very uncertainty of a bottle rocket is what makes it the best kind of fireworks. Will it fizz menacingly and simply sputter out on the ground, or will it fulfill its mission, shooting skyward, exploding with a glorious pop and raining down bits of charred paper?
Such unpredictability makes the Bottle Rockets a fitting name for the best new American roots rock band I've heard. This quartet from Independence, Mo., can spin a quiet tale of beautiful desperation that will make you cry, and in the next track have you perched on the coffee table rubbernecking to a riff copped from ZZ Top.
On their third album, 24 Hours a Day, frontman Brian Henneman's nasal, Midwestern twang wraps around country numbers like "Smokin' 100's Alone," and when things turn ugly, as on "Waiting on a Train," the menace and bitterness are plain as the lyrics he spits out: "I'm so tired of being lonesome/ I'm so tired of being blue."
Reprobates, jilted lovers and small-town boneheads populate the songs, and Henneman tells their stories without pretension. It's up to you to decide if they are losers or heroes. Henneman's songwriting finds both humor and pathos, sometimes mixing them brilliantly.
Like the best writers, he mixes broad strokes with occasional-yet-obsessive attention to the details, leaving it to the listener to fill in the voids. His ability to create a mood with a few stark lines and a simple musical figure give the songs an honesty and a visceral punch that most practitioners of so-called Americana can only aspire to. (Take one listen to "Kerosene" off their first album, and you'll never use the term "trailer trash" again.)
The centerpiece of 24 Hours a Day is "Indianapolis," a high stepper about a guy stuck in "this loser town." He can't get sympathy from his girl, his stranded bandmates, the tow truck driver or anyone in the dive bar where he's drinking beer and waiting for his van ("I'll puke if that jukebox plays John Cougar one more time").
The hard-rocking title track is the poorest representation of their sound. Just like last year's "Radar Gun" -- damn funny song, with the post-grunge guitars and Big Drums necessary to make it a single -- "24 Hours a Day" is the least Bottle Rockets-like song on the disc. So don't judge this band by what you hear on the radio. Literate, evocative songs await on 24 Hours a Day. They'll burn hot and bright into your consciousness like a Roman candle on a dark summer night. Ednor Therriualt
Upon first listen, Whiskeytown's Strangers Almanac sounds like an album Wilco might have made if their frontman Jeff Tweedy had left his creative spark in his other jeans. It's got that alternative country sound -- twanging guitars, fiddles, and beer-soaked vocals -- but not much jumps out except the similarity between chief songwriter Ryan Adams' voice and Tweedy's.
So why, I wondered as I first spun Strangers Almanac, are critics raving about Adams and his crew's second release? Why is the second album by this North Carolina band being so highly praised? What the hell am I missing? I kept listening.
And what I heard were fairly sophisticated country sensibilities blended into subtly-yet-catchy tunes. While none of the album's phrases or hooks are likely to grab you, they do have a way of getting under your skin.
A perfect example is the subdued "Houses on the Hill," which combines Adams' keen sense of melody with a smattering of lyrics most critics love. In it, Adams sings: "There were stars in the sky. There were houses on the hill and there were bottles of pills that were easy to buy, keeping her warm from the oncoming storm."
Apparently, it was a conscious decision on the part of the band to feature their mellower side on Strangers Almanac. The band recorded about three dozen of Adams' compositions, and several of the more raucous are not among the 13 that made the final cut.
That's not to say that the raw sound that Whiskeytown is known for in their live shows doesn't make its presence felt. The album's second song, "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight," is upbeat, and "Waiting to Derail" is downright rockin'.
Although it's hard to call Ryan Adams an incredible songwriter, Strangers Almanac establishes Whiskeytown as a band that deserves a listen. Sure, Adams is smart and sensitive, yet his songs aren't as interesting as those being written by Wilco's Tweedy. Nor are they as sophisticated as those of Son Volt's Jay Farrar, or as catchy as anything the Jayhawks have done in either of their incarnations. Rick Stern