Shovels and Rope is the firstborn child of Charleston, SC music super-couple Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent. (Additional Note: they released a CD called Shovels And Rope as a duo, but this is the first release where they call their band Shovels and Rope. So they named their band after a CD, which was released – by them? Confusing? I hope not.)
Cary Ann Hearst is well known for her powerful country voice, which draws comparisons to the likes of Loretta Lynn. The strength of her vocals, and her bad ass attitude would fit right in on Bloodshot Records. And speaking of Blood, her song, “Hells Bells,” from a previous recording, was featured on the cable series True Blood.
Her husband, Michael Trent, is well known in his own right in Charleston. His work in The Films, and solo material, highlight a love of indie rock, Elvis Costello, and vintage rock.
So what happens when two powerful individuals from different backgrounds come together? Well, like when two strong rivers meet, things can get muddy, churn and toss. But when they settle, can open up into something bigger and better than either alone. That’s what happens on this CD, O Be Joyful.
Certainly, the mix of country powerhouse lady and indie rock guy is not new. Loretta Lynn and Jack White come to mind. Those superstars had roles well defined – Loretta sang and Jack produced. Shovels And Rope, however, is a marriage through and through. When they sing “I hide myself in you” to each other in the opening track “Birmingham”, it’s a little bit true and a little bit of a lie. The reason I say it’s a lie is that in the entire CD neither one of them hides. Each is too good to hide in any company, not even if they tried. They might raise each other up. Perhaps it is only with the musical support of the other that each feels comfortable. It’s a balance that can be hard to maintain.
That first track, “Birmingham,” is a tale of how the two artists came together. Completely devoid of maudlin sentimentality, it’s a love story that blends the country and rock seamlessly. The country-meets-rock instrumentation and melody support the story, and the sublime refrain is a breath of peace among the cacophony.
From the opening track to the closing moments, the duo break a lot of writing and recording rules. It’s been said that you have to know the rules before you can break them. Clearly they know the rules. Each has released a number of collaborative and solo records. Each has recorded with Butch Walker – a guy who knows how to set a hook and reel you in. So when they break the rules on this CD, it’s intentional, risky, and as fun as rule-breaking out to be.
The kind of rules they break are the ones that say you can’t put a fiddle in a indie rock song. Or you can’t mix a heavily distorted bass with a slow picking banjo. But they do these things in “Keeper” and “O Be Joyful” to wonderful results.
“Hail Hail” follows with another rule breaker. It’s during this track that I hear the most direct influence of Elvis Costello (especially Elvis’ work with T Bone Burnett). They toss in wonderful horn arrangement in a plodding rock song, and that alone raises the tune to a rollicking celebration. As a bass player, I love the simple classic bass line that moves the song along. Shovels and Rope prides themselves as a duo. But unlike other indie duos such as the White Stripes or Black Keys in their early days, Shovels and Rope are not against adding more to the record than they can play live. This couple seems to find inspiration, not restriction, by limiting the group to a dou.
“Lay Low” is a quiet ballad that follows. Its slow pacing and soft tone almost make me feel like this is the last song on a great EP. Or the end to the first side of a cassette.
Next up is “Kemba” and it’s the first time I wish they would not have broken a rule. The song itself is a minute and forty second boot stomping gem with a refrain “Come to Carolina / The drinks on me,” that I’d love to send to my friends out of state. But the track starts with a 45 second long monologue from someone at a bar telling the patrons to be quite and listen to the band. It’s kinda cute. Kinda funny. But clearly the recording of the song was not done at this live venue. So other than novelty, it really does not fit. And if I put the track on a playlist or mix – or want to share it with someone - I have to listen to this guy talking about things behind your refrigerator every dang time. That is, unless I put the track in my editing software and cut out the intro. Now, how many people are going to do that? Maybe the band plans to release it as a single without the intro to earn a few more bucks? I don’t know. All I know it the song is good, but after four listens, I already skip it when it comes up. And I won’t put “Kemba” on my playlist for my next party, because of the intro.
The rest of the CD is still strong. The bang and crash of Michael’s simple drumming, vintage guitars, and the dual lead singer attack, make magic on these well crafted tales. “Shank Hill” is a stand out for me near the end. However, on that track, a brilliantly simple hook appears after the second chorus. I’d have loved it if that hook could have happened earlier.
At the very end of the CD, as “This Means War” fades out, we hear a conversation between a grown man and a small child. I have no idea what they are saying or why that sample is in there.
Those are only a few spots where the CD falls short in my enjoyment. The idea behind the project is fantastic. They’re trying to make something fresh, different, and appealing. Overall, they accomplish that. How they pull it off live is something I am excited to see, which I hope to during their current tour.
Buy this CD if you are a fan of: Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, Elvis Costello’s Secret Profane and Sugarcane, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or Lydia Loveless’ Indestructible Machine.
(Dualtone Music Group. Release July 31, 2012)