SHOVELS & ROPE
New West Records
Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, over the course of a couple of proper full-length albums and last year’s odds-and-ends-and-collaborations showcase (Busted Jukebox, Volume 1), have carved out a singular spot for themselves in the Americana genre. The South Carolina duo are among the loosest and most eclectic practitioners — at least at the coveted nationally-touring level — of a style of music that’s already pretty loose, eclectic, and hard to define, even as it elbows its way towards relevancy in a fractured marketplace where it’s easier to make a good-sounding record but perhaps harder than ever to sell it.
Shovels & Rope thrive on ideas and experimentation, so here’s hoping that they remain among the best at selling, defining, and ultimately deconstructing their hybrid country-folk-rock. Little Seeds gives every indication that they will. In a day when most albums, even some of the recent best in the Americana left field, are tightly-engineered monuments to industry expectations and modern recording studio capabilities, Hearst and Trent drag the genre back into a funky garage barely held together in spots by duct tape and bungee cords. Fuzzed-out electric guitars (particularly striking on the leadoff “I Know”) and/or wiry acoustic instruments groove over woody, sparely insistent drum beats; the happily married couple’s voices don’t so much harmonize as they wail in unison, Trent’s drier twang grounding Hearst’s gravelly, gutsy drawl. “He was never much of a singer/But there was shrapnel in his voice,” they sing on the quietly moving “Mourning Song,” but only the last half of the line applies to S&R. Few folk-rock bands are as playful (Shinyribs? The Felice Brothers maybe?) but there’s edge and gravity to Shovels & Rope as well. It gives a sense of urgency to their pervasive spookiness (more on that in a bit) and a sense of profundity to their more conventionally pretty songs (the languidly grateful “St. Anne’s Parade,” the stirring “The Last Hawk”).
All the shared vocalizing comes off like an offhanded testament to love and unity no matter what the subject matter, which is a nice counterpoint to the fact that their songwriting often leans dark. “Botched Execution” is at least as gonzo as its name, with a gallows-humor storyline as your reward if you can keep up with the frenetic tempo, while the relatively downbeat “Buffalo Nickel” kicks up some ominous chills of its own through dark imagery and the grim smirk of Trent’s vocal. There’s death-haunted Civil War balladry (“don’t go whistlin’ Dixie, on Missionary Ridge/don’t call to arms no poltergeist to open up the casket lids …”), sympathetic odes to overmedicated psychopaths (“Johnny Come Outside”), and a timely dirge seemingly stirred up by #BlackLivesMatter (“BWYR”). At first it seems a little too idealistic for such a complex subject (“black lives, white lives, yellow lives, red/Let’s all come together and share our bread”) before the next line turns it on its head: “let’s all join hands and share the dread.” Shovels & Rope at their best are as scary, chaotic, and beautiful as real life gets. There’s plenty of dread to go around, sure, but fortunately with plenty of beauty and excitement to keep it from taking over entirely. — MIKE ETHAN MESSICK