"Zoysia" solidly covers the roots landscape


By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


June 6, 2006

The Bottle Rockets
Grade: A

St. Louis' Bottle Rockets has always been about something.

Frontman Brian Henneman may cry in his beer, wrestle with romance or rail at a highway cop, the Mississippi River or even his motor vehicles, but he has always sung about something bigger: perseverance; tolerance; real values; character.

That's still true, as the band proves on "Zoysia," its seventh studio CD of original material and overall its strongest since 1997's "24 Hours a Day."

The Rockets' previous album, the fine "Blue Sky" in 2003, was heavily colored by 9/11, the deaths of Henneman's parents and the loss of longtime guitarist Tom Parr. It was made as a trio, and it was a record Henneman, especially, probably had to make. Bassist Robert Kearns left not long after.

Now, with a stable lineup and a sympathetic home at Chicago's roots-rocking Bloodshot Records, the reinvigorated Bottle Rockets sounds like it made the record its members also wanted to make. Newest members John Horton on guitars and Keith Voegele on bass have had a couple of years to settle in with Henneman and co-founder Mark Ortmann on drums, and it shows.

Recorded at the famous Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tenn., the soundscape is largely Neil Young & Crazy Horse, with Horton and Henneman complementing each other's solos and creating a guitar wall at once dense and intricate. Ortmann and Voegele make a rock solid rhythm section, keeping the songs in focus.

And all of the band members, plus longtime lyricist Scott Taylor, contribute to the writing. Ortmann and Henneman, whose co-write of the post-9/11 ballad

"Baggage Claim" was a highlight of "Blue Sky," lead off "Zoysia" with the lost love "Better Than Broken" and the CD's first of many memorable lines: "My heart's better than broken, not as good as new."

The band pulls up its blue collars on the band-written "Middle Man," whose protagonist wishes he were more Dixie or Yankee, more Coke or Pepsi -- more anything! But he's like most of us, "stuck in the middle, invisible but reliable," getting on with his life and doing his best.

Other songs deal with both sides of relationships. The pain is palpable in Henneman's "Happy Anniversary," as is the giddiness in the handclap-propelled "Mountain to Climb."

But the heart of "Zoysia" beats in three songs: "Align Yourself," "Blind" and the title song. Together, these songs plead for tolerance, understanding and self-awareness as antidotes to the shackles of extreme positions, the hostility of us vs them/red vs blue, and the false comfort of unthinking allegiance to anything, be it a gang, a brand, a political party or a religion.

"If you align yourself, define yourself," Henneman sarcastically sings, "when you don't know who you are you can remind yourself."

The acoustic "Blind" tackles race in the broadest sense, asking "if everyone was blind would we be surprised/ at who'd become important in our eyes/ could our own two eyes be our own worst enemy/ if we all were blind I wonder what we'd see."

And "Zoysia" returns to Henneman's and the Rockets' favorite place, the small town, where "we pay our bills and mow our lawns" and "our kids fight the wars." It's a place where "if your neighbor gets the zoysia grass/ buddy you get zosia, too/ and maybe if you hurt yourself/ he'll mow your lawn for you" -- despite the different political signs sprouting from his front yard.

Bottle Rockets 'Live'

"Zoysia" is not the only new Bottle Rockets CD. "Live in Heilbronn Germany" is a two-disc collection of 30 audio tracks and two videos recorded just about a year ago in Europe and sold until recently only at shows and on

It features the current lineup of the band tearing through its entire catalog, from "Welfare Music," "I'll Be Coming Around" and "Indianapolis" to "Cartoon Wisdom" and "Blue Sky."

'Live' is not as essential as the original CDs, and it doesn't get the heart pumping like a real concert does, but it's a treat to hear all of these great songs together by an ace band.