One advantage of attending a music-industry event such as South by Southwest or the Americana Music Conference is that you can hear great rock ‘n’ roll in the middle of the afternoon. There are so many bands competing for such thin slices of attention that they will play anywhere at any time.
Now some people think it’s wrong to play rock ‘n’ roll while the sun is shining. They’ll argue that rock is after-work, after-sundown music that needs shadows and alcohol to work its magic. These people probably won’t make love in the afternoon either.
Not me. I believe rock ‘n’ roll, like sex, is for all the hours of the clock and not limited to the nocturnal half of the day. This music shouldn’t be reduced to a shrunken time period any more than it should be reduced to a narrow range of topics. Why should rock ‘n’ roll songs be restricted to nighttime flirting, nighttime driving, nighttime intoxication and nighttime despair? Why can’t they also be about 9-to-5 jobs, family dinners, family dogs and married couples?
I was glad to be sitting on a barstool at the Dan McGuiness Irish Pub, an open-sided bar on Nashville’s Demonbreun Street, on a bright September afternoon, listening to one of the planet’s great rock bands, the Bottle Rockets, sing about daytime topics. The daylight didn’t seem to bother Brian Henneman, the group’s lead singer, who was grinning beneath his shades and straw cowboy hat.
“It might seem strange for us to be playing at one in the afternoon,” he admitted from the stage, “but don’t worry: we’re too old to suck. That’s all in our past.”
The set began with “Monday (Everytime I Turn Around),” a daylight song if ever there were one. The jangly, quarter-note riff from Henneman’s red Rickenbacker guitar chipped away at the fat, rounded bottom of Keith Voegele’s bass and Mark Ortmann’s kick drum. This implacable rhythm suggested the clock that Henneman refers to in the lyrics: “It’s always half past now a while ago. It goes so fast; it won’t slow down. It’s Monday every time I turn around.”
The chorus is a joke, but it’s a joke with a bite. Who hasn’t felt that the clock hand moves too quickly through the weekend hours, pushing us into Monday, where the clock slows down to half its Saturday speed? It’s an unassuming song with its relaxed rhythm, familiar changes, bouncy melody, short lines and plain talk, but it’s as good a song as I’ve heard this year. How can that be?
It’s a reminder that rock ‘n’ roll lyrics don’t have to be cryptic, elliptical and angst-ridden to be effective. It’s a reminder that rock ‘n’ roll music doesn’t have to embrace a new sonic novelty with each passing year. Don’t get me wrong: I like the elliptical lyrics and sonic innovations of such nocturnal bands as Radiohead and the Flaming Lips (Wilco, not so much). But I also like being pulled back to rock’s origins in the ‘50s, when songs drew from old blues and hillbilly structures and spoke in the conversational language of its audience, when songs were designed to be heard in the sunlit hours right after school let out and before Dad came home.
The Bottle Rockets revive that endangered species of rock ‘n’ roll on their new album, South Broadway Athletic Club, which finds the band once again working with its most sympathetic producer, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel. Ambel helped the band craft one of the finest albums of the ‘90s with 1994’s The Brooklyn Side, the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in its full-tableau portrait of a small American town (in Henneman’s case: Festus, Missouri). If this new effort isn’t as ambitious, it’s just as effective in realizing every ambition it does have.
It’s hard to think of a song less pretentious than “Dog,” an inspired rewrite of the Byrds’ instrumental “Nashville West.” “I love my dog; he’s my dog…sometimes life is just that simple,” Henneman sings without a trace of irony over the circular, countrified guitars (played by him and bandmate John Horton). What saves the song from sentimentality and banality is the off-handed phrase, “If you don’t like my dog, that’s OK; I don’t want you to, he’s my dog.” We don’t all have to love the same things, he’s sneakily saying—whether it’s dogs, music or beliefs. Wisdom is not less valuable because it slips in through the dog flap in the back door of a song.
If people in their 20s and 30s do most of their socializing at night, folks in their late 40s and beyond, just like the teenagers of the 1950s, are more likely to do it in the daytime. So it makes sense that the original rock ‘n’ roll template, which allowed Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins to talk to teenagers in short, punchy phrases, should allow the Bottle Rockets to address their baby-boomer peers in the same fashion.
You can hear that in a songs like “Building Chryslers,” which opens with distorted, industrial guitars and paints a portrait of a man “trying not to burn out doing air-bag installations all day.” The song’s protagonist is not a Springsteenish hero of the proletariat but rather a forgivable fuck-up. When he gets home from an exhausting week at the plant, he doesn’t want to go out to the nightclub; he wants to stay home and do a “Big Fat Nuthin’.” In another song, he stops his wife before she can confess an indiscretion and says, “I Don’t Wanna Know.”
These world-weary adults were once “swinging for the fences,” as Henneman sings on “Something Good,” also on the new album, but now they realize that “time flies; Elvis dies, and it’s all over but the shouting.” They have no illusions left that need to be camouflaged by the night. They don’t want to hear it weird and complicated; they want it straight and memorable. They want songs sturdy enough to survive the glare of the sun.
The Bottle Rockets aren’t the only ones pulling this off. Marshall Crenshaw, who has sometimes used the Bottle Rockets as his live band, does something similar on his new album, The EP Collection. In different genres, so do Europop star Mika on his new album No Place in Heaven, country star Kacey Musgraves on her new album Pageant Material and R&B vet Angie Stone on her new album Dream. But there’s no better example of daytime rock ‘n’ roll right now than the Bottle Rockets.