In 2002, Carbon Leaf became the first-ever winners of the American Music Award for best unsigned act. Today, the Virginia quintet is no longer unsigned, and the move from the DIY realm to Vanguard Records, the well-established indie label, has done nothing to dilute their appeal. If anything, the shift has sharpened and improved Carbon Leaf's blend of jam-band improvising, art-rock ambition and alt-country flavors; the new disc, "Indian Summer," boasts catchier melodies, cleaner arrangements and clearer lyrics. Perhaps it's the influence of executive producer David Lowery, a fellow Richmond resident who leads Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven.
Terry Clark's guitar adds a Camper-like touch of psychedelia, while Carter Gravatt's mandolin adds a Cracker-like touch of Americana. On a song such as "Raise the Roof," they create not just one but three memorable melodies, a remarkable surfeit in today's tune-starved era. When singer Barry Privett adds words, he strains too hard for poetry, but his handsome, comfortable baritone makes the vocal lines as attractive as Clark's sustained lead-guitar parts. Privett lacks Lowery's winning sense of humor, but on songs such as "Changeless," the Carbon Leaf singer captures the emotional ache of a twenty-something as he watches his friends scatter to the four corners of the world.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Saturday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Carbon Leaf, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8123. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)