IN A YEAR that has seen fine American neo-folk-rock albums from R.E.M., the Red Rockers, the Swimming Pool Q's and the Long Ryders, one of the best has come from the unheralded True West of Davis, California.

The sextet's first full album, "Drifters," is steeped in echoing guitars, relentless rhythms and hard choices. The layered, ringing guitars of Russ Tolman and Richard McGrath try to slow the songs down, while Steve Packenham's sharp-cracking drums try to push things along.

Tolman's lyrics suggest the dark side of the American landscape, but the music itself is surprisingly bright, with intoxicating guitar harmonies and understated, intimate vocals by Gavin Blair. "Look Around" offers R.E.M.'s obsessiveness without the murkiness; "What About You" offers the Grateful Dead's guitar expansion without the indulgence; "Hold On" offers Tom Petty's anthemic inspiration without the overstatement.

Though Love Tractor lacks the substance of True West, this Atlanta quartet also has an appealing folk-rock sound. The group's airy guitar sound and lean rhythm section create a sparse and inviting openness. Its new five- song EP, "'Til the Cows Come Home," welcomes a new drummer, offers a remix and a live version of past songs and successfully transplants Kraftwerk's "Neon Lights" to a Georgia farm. TRUE WEST -- "Drifters" (PVC 8921); LOVE TRACTOR -- "'Til The Cows Come Home" (DB 71); both appearing Friday at the 9:30 Club.