Check the oil
24 Hours a Day
The Bottle Rockets
Third albums are gateway albums, the point where you find out if you're shtick is getting stale or if you have what it takes to go the long haul. With 24 Hours a Day, the Bottle Rockets manage to show impressive growth and duplicate some of their earlier flaws.
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Every Bottle Rockets album has one stand-out song on it. Last year's was "Radar Gun," off of The Brooklyn Side; the new album's is the first track, "Kit Kat Clock." Irresistibly constructed, it's a stroke of guitar pop genius that chugs along with a small chuckle winding its mainspring, offering just the right amount of bemused self-awareness. The next cut, "24 Hours a Day." is on its surface a brawny, cock-rocking declaration of 'round the clock devotion pushed forward by raw lashes of electric guitar, but the song's enthusiasm soon turns into insanity. "Smokin' 100s Alone" shows that leader Brian Henneman's talent for examining trapped lives is undimmed, as is his eye for simple truths like the pangs brought on by a pile of dirty laundry. He's more restrained than before, and it works: without the near-stridency of earlier songs like the harrowing "Kerosene," his stories are even more effective.
But just as 24 Hours has its bright spots, it has its less distinguished tracks. They're pleasant enough, sure, but they don't pull you in like "Kit Kat." The joke at the center of "When I was Dumb" doesn't work; the steady, deliberate "Things You Don't Know" comes off as a bit slow. A Sweetheart of the Rodeo-style honker ("Rich Man"), a neon folk ditty in the Green On Red vein ("Dohack Joe"), and a dolorous statement of faith ("One of You") might be interesting enough to the amen corner, but fall short of the universal appeal of "Kit Kat."
That said, the Bottle Rockets are still fearless riff-masters--the boldest since the Georgia Satellites, and without the leering wink that tripped the Satellites up. "Perfect Far Away" is another greasy strutter. You may try to resist its swagger, but you'll end up caving in by the start of the second verse. Any song about being "stuck in Indianapolis" has almost got to be a cliche-burner, but here it's an almost heroic ballad with the sweep of a movie soundtrack, telling the tragic tale of a guy suffering through the most abject misery available to modern man: being without transport, exposed to all the buffeting and bum trips that he usually drives right past. The band's ability to honestly present the self-pity of a stranded motorist while refraining from judgment is what compels fans to slog through their less-peppy material. As long as they can keep that interest, they'll be OK. If they can get to where they don't need it, they'll be set.