WilcoWhile my personal musical predilections don't usually run toward folk and country, lately it seems like I've been hearing (and reviewing) a lot of great CDs that fall in that category, including the latest from Chicago's own critically acclaimed Wilco, which I've been enjoying this week. It's hard to believe it's been three years since the band's last disc, the Grammy Award-winning A ghost is born, but their new Sky Blue Sky proves that the band has not been sitting still.

The disc is the first for the band's new lineup, still anchored by guitarist and singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy, and it moves in a more subtle direction than the band's more rock-oriented mid-career releases. While on a first listen, Sky Blue Sky is a fairly sedate recording, repeated listens reveal a wealth of melodic hooks (especially in my favorite track, “Impossible Germany”) along with the wonderfully clean, twining guitar work of Tweedy and avant-jazz guitarist Nels Cline that will remind you of the best of ‘70s AM rock radio. If you enjoy laidback guitar music, honest vocals and a hint of radio days gone by, check this one out.

FeathermerchantsThe Feathermerchants released one of my favorite independent discs a couple years ago, and last year they returned with a new CD in Last Man On Earth on 12 th Street Records, which I've only recently gotten to hear. The disc offers laidback folk-rock songs fronted by the silk-soft vocals of Shannon Kennedy and shored up by the guitarwork of chief songwriter Pete Veru.

It's a great relaxing listen, and includes a cover of The Church's classic “Under the Milky Way” along with nine original songs from the band. To find out more about the band and disc, check www.feathermerchants.com.

A more country-tinged release comes from Gretchen Peters. Burnt Toast & Offerings, which is already out in the UK on Curb Records but will be released here in a few weeks on the independent Scarlet Letter Records.

Gretchen PetersThe CD offers a dozen soft-spoken but strong songs from Peters, whose warm arrangements and wonderfully eloquent lyrics remind me of the work of Beth Nielsen Chapman and Matraca Berg (who she's co-written with recently). Staunch fans of country music are likely familiar with Peters, who has had her songs covered by Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless among others. But while she's written songs that deal with difficult life issues for those artists, this may be her first recording wrestling with demons that are truly personal, as this disc is her first since a painful divorce from her husband and manager of 23 years. You can hear the pain of separation, and the joy of newfound romance running throughout its richly orchestrated, gently ambling tracks, which include a cover of the classic “One For My Baby.” For more information, check her site at www.gretchenpeters.com.


Amy LaVereAmy LaVere
Anchors & Anvils

One of my favorite discs of the year so far comes from standup bassist and singer-songwriter Amy LaVere. Throughout her new disc you can hear a twinkle of a quietly rebellious smile as she sings of the mundane frustrations of women locked in a thankless world of dishwashing, laundry and putting up with unappreciative louts.

“Anchors & Anvils” is a 10-song CD which smolders with hidden, understated passions while strolling across a tapestry of classic Americana music styles.

LaVere sings with an innocence that belies the desperation of some of the lyrics and which ultimately makes the performances even more gripping. LaVere grew up on the border of Texas and Louisiana, and you can hear those influences in her vocal delivery, sometimes reminiscient of the whimsically girlish whisper of Kim Fox, as well as of the country-pop chanteuses of the ‘50s.

In the first track, a LaVere original with a hint of John Fogerty in the guitar, she sings of a couple who are about to breakup. LaVere sings “she'd have to kill him to get him to stay.” Standard frustrated lover fare there. But then, in a deadpan delivery she immediately follows that with a chorus that simply repeats: “killing him didn't make the love go away.” It's that kind of unexpected lyric that pervades this album, even in the songs LaVere didn't write (which is actually the majority of the disc).

Later in the album, another cleverly spun LaVere original melds a funky backporch bit of guitar picking with a hint of Mariachi when the singer buys “Cupid's Arrow” to get a little revenge on a past lover. But ultimately she returns the weapon and sings: “I walked around this cold cold town just a maiden who was wishing/she had never had ideas of revenge and redemption.”

One of the best tracks on the disc actually comes courtesy of LaVere's drummer, Paul Taylor, who offers the honky tonk piano blues of “Pointless Drinking,” which allows LaVere to pine: “pointless drinking/keeping my healthy dose of resentment/keeping me waking with an empty repentance/keeping me broke, broke as a joke.”

There's a bit of fiddle-imbued waltzing in “Tennessee Valentine,” some somber blue train rhythms in Kristi Witt's “Time is a Train” and mysterious bayou gypsy strains in “That Beat” (written by Carla Thomas). A hint of Rod Stewart “Maggie Mae” style guitar colors the breaks of LaVere's gently sweet cover of Bob Dylan's “I'll Remember You” which closes an album that I can only describe as “too short.”

For more information, check www.archerrecords.com.