While the big labels in Nashville issue only a few dozen albums a year, hundreds of smaller imprints are consistently putting out quality projects on performing songwriters like Jimmy LaFave, John Prine and Cheryl Wheeler. Meanwhile, some up-and-coming artists like Hayes Carll and Wideawake are doing it for themselves. Even the majors are taking chances on young musicians like Antigone Rising and Kyle Riabko. For those with adventurous ears, here are 10 of the most interesting albums from the first five months of 2005.
Antigone Rising, From the Ground Up (Hear Music/Lava): These five women possess a gruff musical edge that compares to Melissa Etheridge, and their tight, distinct harmonies may catch you off guard. Rarely does a live album sound this crisp — the difference between a good seat up front and being stuck in the bleachers. They’ve got buzz, too, and not just because Starbucks is the only place that sells it.
Hayes Carll, Little Rock (Highway 87): I still say this guy is going to be a huge star, and I suppose I’ll have to be happy for him when that day arrives. But in the meantime, there are very few songwriters I’d rather hear perform in a bar. His self-deprecating wisecracks from the stage are as charming as the colorful songs he writes, and that’s saying something. If you enjoy dry humor, get this.
Jimmy LaFave, Blue Nightfall (Red House): A real-life Texas troubadour, LaFave blends his Bob Dylan influences with a more romantic viewpoint, resulting in lovely songs like “River Road” and “I Wish for You.” Though he’s a huge admirer of Woody Guthrie, he’s still wise enough to record a suitable contemporary song when he hears it — in this case, Gretchen Wilson’s “Revival.”
Glen Phillips, Winter Pays for Summer (Lost Highway): Toad the Wet Sprocket is kaput, but Phillips remains an effective and strong lead singer. Here, he often examines the lingering insecurity of an otherwise happy, committed relationship. (“Waiting for the other boot to fall,” as one lyric says.) The production is still based in pop music, but the grown-up lyrics will hit you where you live.
John Prine, Fair and Square (Oh Boy): The anti-Bush song “Some Humans Ain’t Human” is getting most of the press, but those who don’t share Prine’s political views will surely find something to love here. His first studio album in nine years finds him in a state of domestic bliss, even if there’s not a henpecked husband alive who can’t relate to “Other Side of Town.”
Kyle Riabko, Before I Speak (Columbia/Aware): Please don’t discount Riabko because he just graduated from high school and thus has no business being a soul singer. These aren’t the blues he’s crooning, but rather the sound of a young man with a passionate voice, a comfortable guitar and concise lyrics that rise above the blandness from most young artists. Keep an eye on this guy.
Greg Trooper, Make It Through This World (Sugar Hill): After following Trooper’s career for a few years now, it’s easy to imagine him trying to conjure ’60s pop music but winding up with a folk song anyway. The ongoing struggle is not in vain, however, because an easygoing broken-hearted song like “Lonely Pair” sounds just like a standard. Try it for Father’s Day, if your dad likes songwriters.
The Waifs, A Brief History … (Compass): This lively Australian trio returns to the U.S. in late June for a tour, and if this energetic concert album is any indication, it’s a show worth catching. Charisma, memorable (and melancholy) originals, killer harmonies from sisters (and founders) Donna and Vikki Simpson, as well as fellow guitarist Josh Cunningham — it’s a winning combination.
Cheryl Wheeler, Defying Gravity (Rounder): This folk singer from Massachusetts will keep you rolling in the aisles during her shows, but her albums tend to be quieter affairs. She’s the rare songwriter who can convey the simplicities of rural life without sounding forced or condescending. But if you prefer the silly side, the ditty about classical music on cell phones is pretty clever.
Wideawake, Not So Far Away (self-released): If you live in Austin, Texas, you may already know about Wideawake, an ambitious rock band that won four local music awards in March. I’ve never seen them live, but if their show is anything like this album, they kick ass. Best of all, they sing — not scream. Along with catchy original songs and hooky melodies, the stars are aligned for a major breakout.