Friday, June 09, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: GRASSROOTS ROCK

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 9, 2006



I’m a writer, not a gardener. So I had to look up the word Zoysia, the title of the new Bottle Rockets album. It’s a type of grass used in suburban lawns. I thought it was a breakaway Soviet republic.

But the image of suburban lawns is at the metaphorical center of this album by Brian Henneman and his trusty band of blue-collar rockers. “But in the meantime, life just goes on/We pay our bills, we mow our lawns.”

Zoysia can be seen as a loose-knit concept album about yearning for normalcy and moderation — yearnings not normally associated with rock ’n’ roll. Sure, artists like John Hiatt have been here before, but Henneman is one of the first rockers who came of age in the ’90s to deal with middle age, middle-class values, and trying to maintain middle ground in divisive political times.

One of the songs here is even called “Middle Man,” which has Henneman grousing, “If I could be a little bit happier/If I could be a little more cranky/If I could be a little more Dixie/If I could be a little more Yankee ...” (Henneman is from Missouri, a Civil War border state).

In “Align Yourself,” Henneman mocks those who give up their individuality to groups and movements. Singing through an electronic filter that almost sounds like a bullhorn, he recites an alphabet soup of various special interests, religions, political parties, and football conferences. “NRA, KKK, Adventists Seventh Day ... FFA, PLO, choose your partner there you go/NAMBLA, PETA, People’s Temple.”

While members of Future Farmers of America might resent being lumped in with the North American Man/Boy Love Association, the message of the song is in the refrain: “Align yourself, define yourself/When you don’t know who you are, you can remind yourself.”

On “Blind,” a slow, twangy tune (complete with mandolin and slide guitar played by Rockets string man John Horton), Henneman sermonizes about the pitfalls of judging people by race and appearance and takes a cheap shot at the American Idol/Britney Spears pop universe. “If we all were blind/would we be surprised at who’d become important in our eyes?”

The most moving track is the title song, which comes at the end of the album. “In my neck of the woods, the town where I live/It’s out in the sticks and conservative/Got lots of churches, we’ve got lots of bars/And the kids ’round here, they fight our wars.”

The lyrics of the bridge remind me of driving through Santa Fe neighborhoods during election season: “Out on the lawns we got campaign signs/We always know when it’s election time/The guy next door, his signs are not like mine/But he’s all right/We get along fine.”

Then there’s that image of the grass, a metaphor of interconnection among people who live close to one another: “If your neighbor gets the zoysia grass, buddy you get zoysia too/And maybe if you hurt yourself, he’ll mow the lawn for you.”

Musically, Zoysia shows the Rockets doing what they do best. They roar like Southern-rock warriors on “Better Than Broken” and “Mountain to Climb” and burn on the Neil Youngish “Happy Anniversary.” They’re also perfectly capable of good-time country, as in “Blind” and “Feeling Down.”

The biggest musical surprise here — and by a landslide the prettiest song on the album — is “Where I’m From,” a slow, mainly acoustic song with trippy chord changes that recall The Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa.

While not breaking much new ground — and not likely to set the commercial woods on fire — Zoysia shows Henneman and The Bottle Rockets living up to that self-description in “Middle Man”: invisible and reliable.

Also recommended:
En Este Momento
by Cordero: Fans of Los Lobos and Calexico definitely should check out Cordero. This is a four-piece band (guitar, bass, drums, and trumpet) that specializes in minimalist, Mexicano-influenced rock.

Singer Ani Cordero, who also wrote all the songs, is from Brooklyn by way of Georgia, where she played drums for a side project of the old space/surf group Man or Astro-man? She has also spent time in Arizona, where she got some recording help from Giant Sand man Howe Gelb.

Cordero’s warm vocals are the main draw here; she sings mainly in Spanish. But trumpeter Omar Little and drummer Chris Verene (Cordero’s husband) are indispensable. Verene shows his stuff on percussion-heavy songs like “Come on Dear” and “María Elisa.”

My favorite songs here include “Don’t Let Them Destroy You,” which has an early-’60s girl-group feel (Shangri-Las go south of the border?); “Matadora,” which would have fit in on the first Los Super Seven album; “La Piedra,” a quiet, acoustic waltz that threatens to explode in thunder; the upbeat “Don Julio,” which Al Hurricane should cover; and “Mamá Ven a Buscarme,” which could almost be part of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

For more information on Cordero and The Bottle Rockets, check out www.bloodshotrecords.com.

1 comment:

  1. Well-written review on Zoysia, Steve. As I listen more and more, I think the songwriting on this one might be Henneman's best.

    Best -
    Jeff Copetas

    ReplyDelete

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