Friday, November 25, 2011

Lean Forward Again: The Bottle Rockets Unplug, Storytell and Fashion Warming Light from Biting Darkness

The title Not So Loud reminds me of when the Bottle Rockets blew out the speaker system Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit hoped to use (they fixed it, he did) in Carbondale, Illinois.  The Bottle Rockets can pretty much define the word loud, and righteously so, which may be part of why I let this acoustic set kick around my floor a couple of months before playing it. Or maybe (more likely) it was just my usual "glued to the ceiling, spinning around" state-of-mind.  On either count, the band gave me what I needed this Black Friday morning, running errands on a cold, gray day, still overstuffed from yesterday and lonesome in that way only the holidays can make us lonesome.

For starters, lead singer, primary songwriter and--as shown here--hot banjo enthusiast, Brian Henneman makes great company.  His introductions are always warm and often very funny, nowhere more so than on the hilarious story about trying to see Dolly Parton amidst a hostile St. Louis crowd, an experience which led to the song, "Perfect Far Away."  The humor takes an edge off hard pathos when he talks about the year Doug Sahm and both of his parents died.

"Not saying Doug Sahm was as influential as my mom and dad, but he was actually more influential musically than my mom and dad were, so it was a heavy year to be sure, for me.  So, we sat around and we waited and we waited and we waited for the Doug Sahm tribute album to come out because they'd made tribute albums to everybody I could possibly think of and people I didn't even know who they were."

When it didn't happen, the band decided to make Songs of Sahm.  Before starting up a beautiful version of "I Don't Want to Go Home," Henneman says, "I was really mad at my musical peers for not doing it.  It was kind of like they should have known better....I always thought he was a superstar.  I had no idea he was obscure anywhere...."  John Horton earns special kudos for the way his lap steel delivers all the yearning that goes beyond words here, just as he does later on "Kit Kat Clock," a song Henneman describes as a "little kid's favorite song about an old guy who's feeling very sad about being an old guy."

"Early in the Morning" and "Kerosene," of course seem made for this treatment, but a rich-textured song like "Gravity Fails" proves remarkably durable and infectious in this setting.  "Turn for the Worse" and the barn burner "Rural Route" (both of which feature that aforementioned banjo and guest guitarist Kip Loui) never sounded better than they do here.  Keith Voegele's upright bass and Mark Ortmann's "shaky things" add just the right traction to make this "Rural Route" both fun and dangerous.

But nothing here could be more poignant than the closer, "Mom & Dad," a song from 2003's Blue Sky, a song about talking to lost parents while mowing their lawn, picking up their mail and petting their cat.  It's a song about those questions we all ask the dead, that dialogue that doesn't stop simply because one speaker's not here anymore to take part in the conversation.  In a way, it's about the leap of faith that goes into writing a song, often as not, a conversation with ghosts. 

And with guys like me....driving around on a holiday morning, needing the sort of magic to be found on a record like Not So Loud.


Anonymous said...

You've inspired me to get the album. Don't know why I was holding off, maybe because I like their loud stuff so much. Thanks, it's on my Christmas list.

Danny Alexander said...

Glad to hear it!