The Bottle Rockets have a reputation as a band that knows how to crank it up in that purely redneck way‚ courtesy Zippo-ready anthems like "Thousand Dollar Car‚" "Radar Gun‚" and "The Long Way." Formed in Festus‚ Missouri in the early 90s‚ the band came out swinging with two albums‚ The Bottle Rockets and The Brooklyn Side‚ that are considered founding documents of the Americana revolution.
Since then‚ the Rockets have struggled through a number of record company nightmares producing a series of recordings--some solid and some less so--before finding a good fit at Bloodshot Records. But if their catalog is somewhat uneven‚ their live shows are usually spot on--and proudly emblematic of everything to love about a Saturday night in rock 'n' roll America‚ including the noise and the sweat.
At the same time‚ there's always been a core of literary ambition in the Bottle Rockets' unashamedly honest portraits of America's underdogs. But according to frontman and chief songwriter Brian Henneman‚ when the band is blowing at hurricane force‚ the intent of what he calls "3-minute police reports of situations" sometimes gets lost in the mix.
"A band can make things great--and it can pummel things too. It can crush things into the ground. And what generally seems to get crushed is whatever that little mysterious thought in the head was. It's like it turns into something different. It doesn't mean it's something bad. Just different."
The sonic crush has been curtailed in the band's new release Not So Loud: An Evening with the Bottle Rockets (Bloodshot Records). It showcases an acoustic version of the band--a bit less loud and sweaty‚ but all the more intimate for the difference.
The record might not have happened at all had it not been for the venue in which it was recorded--the Lucas School House in St. Louis‚ a 19th-century gem. "They wanted us to play there really badly‚" says Henneman. "So we went down and looked at the place and it just was the perfect place to not do a loud rock and roll show. It was like 'whoa this is way too cool to come in here and blast really loud'…We don't play with a lot of restraint. So that was the room to do it with acoustic instruments. It's more fun to really get into it with an acoustic than to not try to get too into it with an electric."
Recording two years ago during a two-night stint at Lucas‚ which has since fallen victim to the sagging economy‚ Not So Loud is proof of how a different approach to performance can carve new dimensions out of familiar tunes--and how simple stories can stir up complex emotions. Stripped to their essence‚ "Kit Cat Clock‚" "Turn for The Worse‚" "Rural Route‚" and other BR standards become new again. Clearly‚ these guys can do more than slam--although on "Rural Route‚" they do plenty of that. Henneman's assertion to the contrary‚ they can play with restraint‚ and even finesse--something casual fans might not have realized.
Mixed by longtime Bottle Rockets producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel‚ Not So Loud is as close to a greatest hits collection as the band has ever issued. But if your favorite BR tune ("Wave That Flag‚" say‚ or "Indianapolis") is MIA‚ chances are it's a result of snags in the recording process.
The original tracks were captured by the soundman at the Lucas School House shows--and‚ at least at first‚ it seemed the band would have a lot to choose from. "The first night we probably did 25 or 30 songs. The second night we did the same 25 songs or so‚ just to have two takes. And because a lot of the same people came to both shows and we wanted to give them some sort of reward for enduring the same set list two nights in a row…we ending up doing like a 20 song encore." This generosity toward the fan base is typical of the Rockets. In 2008‚ they celebrated their 15th anniversary with a 15-city tour‚ letting fans make up the set list for each show.
With tapes from the School House shows in hand‚ the band considered its options--giving cuts away online‚ for example‚ or including them as bonus tracks for another studio release. In the end‚ they decided to let Eric Ambel take a first shot at a mix and go from there.
Almost immediately‚ gremlins attacked. First‚ the tracks were recorded in a format that clashed with Ambel's system‚ and it took some work to resolve the compatibility issues. Then Ambel discovered a host of glitches--distortion‚ dropouts‚ and the like‚ that reduced the track choices for the final album considerably.
It's a testament to Ambel's skills at the mixing board that he was able to take what might have been a disaster and create instead a warm‚ heartfelt record that puts the focus on a particular aspect of the band's heritage--its lyricism. And according to Henneman‚ even longtime fans are looking at the songs in a different way.
"I hate to use the phrase‚ but for some people‚ [the songs] seem to be easier to take seriously in the acoustic way. I've heard some people say that they were surprised…A drum set and some electric guitars can do wonders and save the world. And it can mask a lot of things too. It's good to have almost naked versions. Those are closer to what the songs were like when they were written."