I’m making a list — and checking it twice — of my favorite independent albums from the last few months. From traditional country to mellow singer-songwriters, here’s a mixed bag of goodies for the adventurous music lover.
The Avett Brothers, The Second Gleam (Ramseur)
This EP is much quieter than you’d expect from the otherwise enthusiastic ensemble. Their future certainly looks bright. A record with Rick Rubin is on the way, but for now, the North Carolina siblings are saying farewell to the good ol’ days with wistful tunes about growing up and moving on. It’s a satisfying counterpoint to their wild live show.
Choice track: “Tear Down the House”
The Bittersweets, Goodnight, San Francisco (Compass)
There is so much to admire on this record — smart songs, memorable melodies and a vocal delivery that draws you in no matter how many times you listen. Most of the songs are written by Chris Meyers, sung by Hannah Prater and grounded by drummer Steve Bowman, a member of Counting Crows during the era of August and Everything After. If you like the moods on that album, I bet you’ll be interested in this one, too.
Choice track: “Goodnight, San Francisco”
Melonie Cannon, And the Wheels Turn (Rural Rhythm)
One of the most expressive singers in Nashville, and not merely in bluegrass circles, Cannon compels you to listen to these stories of everyday life, whether she’s consoling a new friend or stumbling into love after swearing it would never happen. She also submits a fine rendition of “Set ’Em Up Joe,” the Vern Gosdin tune written by her dad, producer Buddy Cannon. “Back to Earth,” a duet with Willie Nelson, is a soothing highlight, too.
Choice track: “Cactus in a Coffee Can”
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Rattlin’ Bones (Sugar Hill)
If your last few romances can be summed up with, “Well, it was fun while it lasted,” this Australian couple makes for good company. Their voices blend beautifully, yet Chambers still has that ache in her delivery that makes every song sound just a little bit sad. Or in the case of “Wildflower,” almost unbearably sad. Extra points for not burying the banjo.
Choice track: “Every Once in a While”
HeyBale!, The Last Country Album (Shuffle 5)
I may plan my next trip to Austin around this honky-tonk band’s schedule because you just can’t find live music like this in the Nashville bars. This album is loaded with twangy vocals, rip-roaring piano and juicy guitar licks. Although most of the songs are originals, they sound like they were forgotten under a few layers of sawdust (from the dance floor, you know). Who needs a jukebox when these guys are the house band?
Choice track: “California Wine”
Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights (Saguaro Road)
The blue Kentucky girl holds her own on country classics originally made famous by George Jones, Webb Pierce, Ray Price and Hank Williams. All this heartbreak is almost too much to bear — in the best possible way, of course. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more persuasive singer, and when Vince Gill comes in on harmony, it can’t be beat.
Choice track: “Sleepless Nights”
Catherine MacLellan, Church Bell Blues (True North)
This singer-songwriter from Halifax, Nova Scotia, possesses a warm, gentle voice and a knack for saying a lot in just a few words. I first heard this album on a long road trip, and the easygoing tempo, comfortable melodies and conversational lyrics made it an ideal travel companion. I finally had to take it out of the car because I wasn’t listening to anything else. By the way, her father, Gene MacLellan, wrote Anne Murray’s classic, “Snowbird.”
Choice track: “Too Easy”
Josh Rouse, The Best of the Rykodisc Years (Ryko/Rhino)
Even though we’re roughly the same age, I grew up listening to Josh Rouse. That is to say, his music was a constant during my mid-20s when I was figuring out life beyond the dorm. This compilation immediately takes me back to those formative years. I was so much more open back then and far more innocent. Plus, I didn’t fade when midnight rolled around. I miss that guy sometimes. Anyway, this isn’t country. It’s more like pop music for late nights — and some of my favorite music to ever come out of Nashville.
Choice track: “My Love Has Gone”
Robin & Linda Williams, Buena Vista (Red House)
I’d like to think that as I go through life, I’ll end up like Robin & Linda Williams — curious ramblers with a sense of humor. This folk duo is one of Garrison Keillor’s most frequent guests on Prairie Home Companion, probably because their friendly spirit shines through on the radio. I am quite fond of “Maybelle’s Guitar and Monroe’s Mandolin,” an upbeat tune about a breathtaking visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Choice track: “Going, Going Gone”
Yarn, Empty Pockets (Ardsley Music)
Country music from Brooklyn, N.Y.? I admit, I was skeptical at first, but this music is far too charming to be just a novelty. The songwriting is sharp, even if the album as a whole is agreeably ragged. Guests include Edie Brickell and Caitlin Cary (formerly of Whiskeytown — a fitting musical reference). With an arsenal of original, down-on-your-luck songs, I bet they sound really good in a dark bar in the middle of the afternoon.