Though it’s hardly the most obvious choice for an album title, you have to wonder why alt-country lifers the Bottle Rockets took so long to name an album Zoysia. Zoysia, for the curious, is a type of lawn grass, and it perfectly fits the image the ‘Rockets have cultivated over the course of 13 years and eight albums. Like the grass, the band is down to earth, mixed in equally with roots and rock and fun — ya gotta admit that “zoysia” (pronounced “ZOY-shuh”) is one of the more fun words you’ve read today. And, dropping the grass analogy, Zoysia is easily the best album the Bottle Rockets have turned in since 1999’s Brand New Year.
The band’s last offering, 2003’s Blue Sky was a more somber affair largely informed by the death of frontman Brian Henneman’s parents. In the three years since that record, the band picked up a new bassist — Keith Voegele — and signed to the label they should’ve been on all along, Bloodshot (the 2002 Doug Sahm one-off tribute album Songs of Sahm released on Bloodshot notwithstanding). The new bassist and sympathetic label have reinvigorated the band, and several of the tunes on Zoysia are on par with the band’s fantastic mid-’90s output.
The ‘Rockets come out firing early, with the opening barroom stomper “Better Than Broken”. Henneman’s always been one of the keener observers of relationships, and the song’s chorus proves he’s still got it: “My heart is better than broken, / Not as good as new”. The dude’s a great conversational lyricist, and underappreciated, to boot.
And he’s succinct, too, summing up — intentionally or otherwise — the band’s 13-year career in four minutes with “Middle Man”. While the song is not expressly about a band, its plays directly like The Bottle Rockets Story: it’s a real rockin’ blues number, with Henneman singing that he’s always been “right between anything tangible”, “invisible but reliable” and that such a life is “the only thing I’ve ever been”. I don’t know about you, but to these ears that sound like the story of a career act that has flourished despite playing an often-hard-to-define genre (alt-country: is it rock? Country? Both? Neither?) with very little radio support or widespread recognition. All that said, the band cooks on the tune and it’s easily one of Zoysia‘s highlights.
So, too, is “Suffering Servant”; add it to the list of great unrequited love songs the band has turned out since their debut album’s “Gas Girl”. It’s a topic they’re nowhere near to exhausting. Plus, the tune features a neat little keyboard riff. The ‘Rockets don’t dust off the keyboard too often — here’s hoping they keep it in the repertoire, as it brightens their already-sprightly sound.
It’s good to hear the ‘Rockets staying in peak form, telling honest tales about day-to-day life. Of course, politics and political division are big parts of Life in These United States nowadays, and the biggest, most pleasant surprise is how effortlessly the band incorporates these notions into their sound without betraying themselves. The last time the Rockets even got remotely political they were decrying Y2K fears on 1999’s “Helpless”. Zoysia, meanwhile, boasts three politically-informed songs, and two of them are pretty darn good. The clunker: the fuzzed-out / filtered vox experiment “Align Yourself”, where the band bemoans the triumph of groupthink over individuality. Like the sentiment, but not digging the execution. The band fares better with the midtempo ballad “Blind” (“They got everything in common, / Except the color of their skin”) and the Crazy Horse jam of a closing title track.
Checking in at seven minutes with some of the Bottle Rockets’ most impressive, impassioned guitar jamming, “Zoysia” is epic while still hewing to the band’s conversational tone: You and your neighbor may not see eye to eye about politics, but there’s no reason he / she can’t help you cut your grass if you get injured and can’t do it. Plainspoken, simultaneously personal and universal — and one helluva guitar workout — “Zoysia” the song and the rest of Zoysia the album show that the Bottle Rockets are capable of honoring their past while still forging ahead creatively. It’s a treat to see the Bottle Rockets still burning bright.