In many respects, the Bottle Rockets were victims of bad timing; when they arrived on the scene with their first album in 1993, many alt-country fans were looking for music that was serious and "said something," and the band's defiant hard rock moves and Lynyrd Skynyrd influences didn't give them a very high cool rating, despite the undeniable strength of their songwriting and the endorsement of alt-country icons Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. The critical respect and commercial success the Drive-By Truckers would earn after 2001's Southern Rock Opera was the victory the Bottle Rockets should have claimed, confirming there was an audience ready for their blue collar smarts and rowdy, guitar-fueled attack, though that wasn't clear until after the BoRox's major-label deal fizzled out. Bloodshot Records has reissued the Bottle Rockets' first two albums in a deluxe package, and two decades on, it's hard to imagine how a band this good (and accessible) didn't earn more than a loyal cult following on the strength of these records. 1993's Bottle Rockets was knocked out in just two days, and sometimes it sounds like it; John Keane's recording is clear but the production is on the level of a good demo, with no frills and an approach that doesn't always make the most of the twin-guitar attack of Brian Henneman and Tom Parr. The band sounds ferociously tight, though, and the songs are great, especially "Rural Route," "Wave That Flag," "Kerosene," and "Manhattan Countryside," all brilliant snapshots of life in the Deep South as the divide between the haves and have-nots was growing deeper each day. 1995's The Brooklyn Side paired the Bottle Rockets with Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, a producer who got their hard rock thunder on tape as well as their quiet side -- those guitars get beefed up mightily, and bassist Tom V. Ray and drummer Mark Ortmann are better served as well -- and the result was a triumph. "Welfare Music" was a brilliant statement of political purpose; "Radar Gun" a superb, tough-as-nails character study; "Gravity Fails" and "$1,000 Car" found stories worth hearing in a regular guy's life, and "Take Me to the Bank" is one of the best and most joyous Chuck Berry lifts of the '90s. Both albums sound as smart, muscular, and rousing as they did on the day they were released, and this set also includes a wealth of unreleased demos and live recordings, including several tracks from the band's early incarnation as Chicken Truck. Add in a 40-page booklet packed with photos and praise from friends, colleagues and admirers (ranging from Steve Earle to Bun E. Carlos), and you get the definitive portrait of the Bottle Rockets' formative years. Thankfully, they're still at it, but this remains some of their finest work to date, and whether you missed them back in the day or are updating your library, this set is a must.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2
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