For about two years in the mid-’90, it looked like the Bottle Rockets were going to break out of the alt country underground and take their ragged-but-right Dixie-fried hard rock to the larger audience they deserved. But after Atlantic Records dropped the promotional ball on 1997’s underappreciated 24 Hours a Day, the Bottle Rockets’ fortunes took a turn for the worse and coincidentally, they also seemed to jump the groove in the recording studio; while the band never made a flat-out bad album, Brand New Year and Blue Sky failed to connect with the same degree of muscle, street smarts, and regular-guy philosophy they achieved with such apparent ease on The Brooklyn Side and 24 Hours a Day. Thankfully, 2006’s Zoysia finds the Bottle Rockets finally back at full-strength again. Brian Henneman and company sound agreeably loose but totally emphatic on these 11 songs, diving into the tunes with the commitment of a veteran roadie who knows you can’t rock out by worrying stuff to death, but still striking the targets with the right degree of force. This lineup of the Bottle Rockets — with longtime members Henneman (vocals and guitar) and Mark Ortmann (drums) joined by John Horton (guitar) and Keith Voegele (bass) — doesn’t pack the firepower of The Brooklyn Side edition of the group, but they hit their marks with a graceful touch that doesn’t keep them from bringing the rock to numbers like “Better Than Broken” and the title song. And Zoysia is the strongest set of songs Henneman has written since 24 Hours a Day, blending deeply personal first-person stories (“I Quit” and “Where I’m From”), meditations on busted romance (“Better Than Broken” and “Happy Anniversary”), and telling observations of the American political and cultural landscape circa 2006 (“Align Yourself,” “Blind,” and “Zoysia”). Henneman is that rare guy who writes from the heart and the gut, and can say something powerfully moving without getting pretentious; he’s a seriously underrated lyricist, and his growling Neil Young-influenced guitar chords are just the right accompaniment for his words. Zoysia finds Henneman with a batch of fine tunes, a great band, and a producer (Jeff Powell), who can get it all on tape without either sapping their strength or getting in the way; the result is one of the best albums the Bottle Rockets have released to date, and a superb return to form from a great American band. Listen hard and turn it up.