"I'm so afraid that all these words are made of glass," drawls Souled American singer-guitarist Chris Grigoroff in "Born(free)," one of eight brooding songs on "Notes Campfire," and the music certainly conveys that sense of fragility. This Chicago band helped plow the first pastures of alt-country more than a decade ago, with music that despite its Appalachian twanginess took its rhythms from Jamaica and New Orleans. Then the group's record label folded, the drummer quit and the sound became slower and starker.

"Notes Campfire" is Souled American's first U.S. album since 1990, but it's the last of three that were released in Europe between 1992 and 1997. Having missed the band's natural evolution, American listeners may be startled, except that Souled American's drift parallels that of such performers as Will Oldham and Richard Bruckner. Although Grigoroff and co-writer Joe Adducci were once ahead of their time, such "Notes Campfire" songs as "All My Friends" and "Deal" have a haggard, mournful quality that seems both timeworn and utterly contemporary.

Appearing Thursday at the Black Cat with the Black Heart Procession. To hear a free Sound Bite from Souled American, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8132. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)