Many bands have lost at least some of their emotional fire, if not their creative spark, 22 years into their careers, leaving their fans content to settle for a couple of memorable new songs now and then. The Bottle Rockets are not one of those bands.
“South Broadway Athletic Club” is the St. Louis band’s 12th album, ninth of original material and first in six years. If it’s not the band’s best record, you could try to cram a sheet of tissue paper between it and whatever record you consider its best – “The Brooklyn Side”? “Zoysia”?
So just call it the career album of the current Bottle Rockets lineup, the one since bassist Keith Voegele and guitarist John Horton joined founders Brian Henneman and drummer Mark Ortmann a decade ago. “South Broadway Athletic Club” contains a fluid, instantly memorable collection songs, each of which reveals a little bit more of itself with repeat listens. The songs are rich with crunchy guitars, strong hooks, and literate lyrics.
Chief songwriter Henneman is progressing through his early 50s, and he’s pretty darned happy with his life. He’s not obsessed with politics or Rush Limbaugh or the state of nation; rather, he’s appreciating his marriage, sharing some relationship wisdom, taking a look back at his younger days – and learning from his dog Rocco that “sometimes life is just this simple.”
“Dog,” written with Brian Henningsen, patriarch of the family songwriting/performing trio the Henningsens, has been an early audience favorite at local shows. It’s deceptively simple and, heard after a day of political nonsense and another mass shooting, is a welcome relief:
“I love my dog/ He’s my dog/ If my dog don’t love you/ That’s okay/ I don’t want him to/ He’s my dog/ Sometimes it’s just this simple/ Sometimes life is just this simple/ Sometimes life is really just this simple/ I love my dog.”
This record represents some firsts for the band. It was recorded in St. Louis, at Sawhorse Studios. And rather than recording in one brief, time- and money-cruched frenzy, it was recorded during three sessions over several months, giving the music and the band’s attitude toward it time to grow and adjust.
This is the first Bottle Rockets album that doesn’t feature lyrics by Ortmann’s high school teacher Scott Taylor. Henneman has expanded his palette, lyrically by working with the Brian, Aaron and Clara Henningsen, and sonically by bringing a jangly 12-string Rickenbacker into the mix.
The Rick-12 plays a big role behind the heartbreaking “Something Good,” a midtempo rocker about lovers with a tragic set of mismatched expectations: “I was swinging for the fences/ I was pouring out my heart/ While you marveled at the plastic/ That they use these days in cars/ We had something good/ But good was never good enough for you.”
Several of these songs were road-tested before recording ever began. St. Louis fans have heard “Big Lotsa Love” and “Monday (Everytime I Turn Around)” from Henneman during his solo gigs and duo shows around town with Kip Loui. Hearing them fleshed out by the full band demonstrates how integral Horton, Voegele and Ortmann are to this band – not that there was ever any doubt.
“Monday,” featuring a fiery solo by Horton, is for everyone who’s getting older and for whom time is speeding up (“goes so fast/ won’t slow down/ Monday every time I turn around”).
“Big Lotsa Love” is a love song to Henneman’s wife, a wizard of a shopper at the Big Lots store, as Henneman has warmly explained in introducing the song at shows. And “XOYOU,” featuring Hennemen on electric sitar, celebrates a rough character redeemed by love who’s amazed about sending “love note abbreviations/ Comin’ from a guy like me.”
“Big Fat Nuthin’ ” chugs along unapologetically, the singer demanding some down time for a little “brain dead flat line vegetation.”
Two songs look back. The band goes full Crazy Horse on the snarling “Building Chryslers,” which finally gets an official release after the 1994 demo appeared as a bonus track on a reissue of “The Brooklyn Side” two years ago. It’s a kind of companion piece to “Lucky Break,” from the “Blue Sky” (2003) album, which was about a guy taking full advantage of workers’ comp. On “Chryslers,” the guy is on the assembly line, in it for the overtime and his Bass boat, automobile quality be damned.
The Chrysler plant in Fenton, MO, is long gone, as is the glass works in neighboring Crystal City once owned by Pittsburgh Plate Glass, aka PPG Industries. That plant plays a role in “Ship It on the Frisco,” a wistful song about jumping freights on the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway. The Frisco, which served the Midwest and never did get built to the West Coast, had a depot in Festus, MO, Henneman’s hometown:
“Now them new trains at dawn
Don’t slow down now the factory’s gone
Just blows through town
Too fast for a kid to grab on
“But I know, buddy, you and me
Remember how it used to be
When she was creepin’ like a snail
Crawlin’ outta PPG”
The song also features washes of organ played by Carl Pandolfi, Henneman’s bandmate in a St. Louis outlaw-country cover band called Diesel Island.
“South Broadway Athletic Club” hits the trifecta: great songs, fine playing and terrific sound thanks to longtime Bottle Rockets producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and his engineering team, who serve the songs well with a mix that achieves grit, clarity, and nuance.