What better time to celebrate independent music than Independence Day? From the realms of bluegrass, alternative country, R&B and folk, here are 10 top-notch independent albums that have crossed my desk during the first half of 2009.
Jeffrey Foucault, Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes (Signature Sounds)
Foucault's evocative baritone emphasizes the loneliness and regret in John Prine's quirky catalog. And without Prine's characteristic wink, I feel like I'm discovering these songs for the first time. "Unwed Fathers" and "Hello in There" don't have happy endings, but they're among the most cinematic songs I've ever heard, no matter who is singing.
The Guggenheim Grotto, Happy the Man (UFO)
This Irish duo found success on iTunes when Happy the Man hit No. 1 on the folk chart. With more layers of pop production than most singer-songwriter albums, these lyrics cut right to the heart. I'm stuck on the passive-aggressive love affair of "Her Beautiful Ideas," and with these upbeat, addictive melodies, I guess I'm not ready to move on, either.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, self-titled (Lightning Rod)
The people who populate Isbell's lyrics make a lot of bad decisions. However, musically speaking, the album gets more compelling with each listen. Sweaty guitar riffs enhance the narrative, rather than interfere with it, as he traverses rock ("Seven-Mile Island"), country ("Cigarettes and Wine") and Muscle Shoals soul ("No Choice in the Matter").
Ben Kweller, Changing Horses (ATO)
He made his name in indie rock circles, but Kweller's expressive vocals are well-suited to this easygoing album. With all the pedal steel and harmony, this young Texan's album suggests he would have fit right into the West Coast country scene in the early 1970s. It's fun to hear him get fired up on "Fight," only to chill out again on "Things I Like to Do."
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Lonely Street (Rounder)
This bluegrass gospel legend and his capable band confidently dip into traditional country this time around. If you like those old Nashville tunes about getting back on your feet (or wallowing in self-pity) when you've been dumped, you'll appreciate "Ain't a Woman Something When She's Gone," the title track and "My Real World of Make Believe."
Catharine MacLellan, Water in the Ground (True North)
If you feel like your life is in transition, Catharine MacLellan's new album might help you find peace. "All Those Years" captures that moment when you look at the house you grew up in, knowing that it belongs to someone else now -- and that life goes on. She writes fun songs, too, but with quiet arrangements, her message of resilience is not lost.
Buddy and Julie Miller, Written in Chalk (New West)
The album opens with "Ellis County," an earnest, enjoyable song about less complicated times, but it isn't long until the lyrics plummet to the depths of despair -- and I can't pull myself away. Julie's girlish voice won't appeal to everyone, yet the grief she conveys in her writing is universal, as on "Chalk." Dig that soul of "One Part, Two Part," too.
Jonell Mosser, Trust Yourself (Better Angels)
This soulful entertainer has been singing around Nashville for as long as I can remember. You can hear her hard-won wisdom in her delivery -- which is not to say she can't wail. Brother, she can. But when you absorb "Learn to Love," you realize that she's sharing her life experience with you. Fans of Bonnie Raitt and Wynonna, take it to heart.
Red Stick Ramblers, My Suitcase Is Always Packed (Sugar Hill)
These Louisiana guys blend spicy Cajun music with honky-tonk weepers, resulting in an unusual and enticing gumbo. If you're looking for a beer buzz, check out "Drinkin' to You" and "Bloodshoot Eyes." Single guys will also get a kick out of the unapologetic title track, as well as "The Barnyard Bachelor," the irresistible call-and-response closer.
The Tractors, Trace Union (Koch)
The first time I played this, I thought, "Rhythm and blues with an emphasis on rhythm." Horns and drums keep the album anchored, especially on "Up Jumped the Boogie." They also plow fertile ground with a bouncing cover of Harlan Howard's country classic, "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down." J.J. Cale and Leon Russell contribute cool tunes, too.