In a country where interstates don’t take you to new places, but to the same places, where everywhere you go you’ve already been or you’ve just left, The Bottle Rockets’ new album absolutely nails a sound and a vibe with a palpable sense of place. Lean Forward is suffused with the determination and resilience of their distinctly midwestern roots; theirs is a celebration of pragmatism and tempered optimism, not the delusions and exhortations of glassy eyed zealots—they aren’t going to fall for that. Oh, it’s a flat out, smoking rock record, too.
Lean Forward continues the Rockets’ creative resurgence ignited by 2006’s Zoysia. Reunited with producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (who ran the knobs on the Bottle Rockets’ seminal albums The Brooklyn Side and 24 Hours A Day), the Bottle Rockets do what no other band does better — look into the hearts and minds and faces of the dying small towns in America and crafts populist anthems with the sympathetic eye of Woody Guthrie and sonic stomp of Crazy Horse. They are songs that demand the windows be rolled down and the volume turned up. And with the hooks, you’ll wonder how they make such problems sound so good …
Lean Forward is stacked with a sharp lyricism and gritty fatalism that looks off the front porch for inspiration, and has the locked down groove of a band on top of its game. “The Long Way” looks on the bright side of the path not intentionally taken and works into a joyous song-ending jam. Songs like “Done It All Before” and “Get on the Bus” shine with an irresistible buoyancy, as does “Shame on Me” which gets to the meat of the relationship matter that, despite our best intentions, we’re all gonna screw up. “Hard Times” whips up a ZZ Top-inflected boogie with effortless mastery and a dual guitar attack that’ll put some much-needed flare back in your jeans.
On “Kid Next Door,” the lyrics bypass protest in favor of simple commentary on a war coming home, making it a far more powerful song no matter where one stands on the issue. It’s a stone cold classic and handled with the deftness and conviction that speaks to the Rockets’ sober-minded realism. To see that they’ve still got scruffy punk moxie to spare, look no further than “The Way It Used To Be” and the channeling of Bo Diddley via the Stooges on “Nothing but a Driver.”
With their 15th anniversary now in the rear view mirror, the Bottle Rockets show no signs of letting up. Lean Forward is an album that celebrates the forces of erosion not earthquakes, of the marathon not the sprint. Honed in their towns and on their back roads, it is distinctly the Bottle Rockets. Rather than be confining, this identity broadens the appeal and strength of their music far from their backyards into our own. Their specificity speaks universally and the message is a simple one: Lean forward, man, because it beats falling back.