This summer at Newport, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent (aka Shovels and Rope) hung out at the Museum Stage for an unannounced set of new material alongside longtime friends and road buddies Hayes Carll and Allison Moorer. They traded songs back and forth, with Cary Ann and Michael exclusively playing new material from Little Seeds, which will be released on Friday. It was a special part of the weekend, and that setting allowed them to underscore some of the vulnerability expressed on the album. Part of growing up is also losing the previous generation and Cary Ann talked about this challenge and how both illness and loss have colored their work recently. What results is an album that runs the emotional gamut and, in keeping with their fantastic previous releases, defies easy categorization.
The first two tracks, “I Know,” and, “Botched Execution,” launch the album with the duo’s characteristic heavy guitar riffs and wry sense of humor. The first single follows, “St. Anne’s Parade,” beginning with a loosely-strummed mandolin, presenting a nice shift from the driving “Botched.” I first heard this tune in February when S&R played The House of Blues with Jason Isbell and while it was lovely to hear in that stripped down setting, with just one guitar, the additional instrumentation adds a beautiful texture to the lyrics: “And it never feels like we’re getting any older / But the memories build up around the eyes. / And I need more fingers than I got on my two hands / This life may be too good to survive.” It’s hard to underestimate the work it takes to write a lyric like that, one that is simple and spare, but has depth in both what is sung and what is between the lines. They released a gorgeous video for “St. Anne’s Parade,” featuring footage from The Ballad of Shovels and Rope, a documentary I can’t recommend strongly enough, it’s just so beautiful.
Michael’s father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and both “Mourning Song,” and “Invisible Man,” are responses to their experience with this awful illness. They are very different songs. “Invisible Man” is danceable, with some serious vocal acrobatics from Cary Ann (“I feel like I’m sinking do-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-n”), whereas “Mourning Song” paints a picture of absence and also the gifts given by one generation to another: “She walked into the kitchen, where most mornings would begin / Put her hands down on the counter, stretch of fingers long and thin / Drug her eyes across the wall to where he’d hung his mandolin / Then she whispered out the count like she was whispering it to him.” The song builds to a line of defiance: “Sorrow will not win.”
“BWYR,” stands out on the album because it’s probably the least like anything you’ve heard from Shovels and Rope before. It is a commentary on our country’s horrific and unending stream of gun violence, particularly violence motivated by racism. There is a gentle and steady picked guitar with a swirling undertone of sonic noise; Michael and Cary Ann’s voices echo and reverberate as they deliver the almost spoken-word song. “BWYR,” uses a repetitive rhyme scheme that seems to suggest the painful predictability of what happens when you pit people against each other and have arms readily available: “Talk is talk but nothing gets said / Nothing gets done and the hate it spreads. / While mothers and families hang their heads / And children weeping in their beds. / Blood was bled and tears were shed / While that sorry rag flies overhead / That blocks the light, but not the lead / That blinds the proud with pride instead / While the poor go hungry and the fat get fed. / Black lives, white lives, yellow lives, red.”
The final song “This Ride,” a tribute to a friend who recently passed away, and it is preceded by “Eric’s Birthday,” a recording of Eric’s mother telling about his birth in the back of a police car. The track ends with family and friends breaking up laughing, as you do to keep from crying. “This Ride” is intense, is filled with heartache, and is just damn cathartic. I love the way this song is musically mellow but their delivery of the lyrics is with go-for-broke straining intensity. The song closes with a recording of someone reflecting on their life and their blessings (“I’ve had a lot of happiness, and I don’t want to be sad all the time. … I have a grandchild, I have a husband who loves me and I love him. I’ve had a good life.”) before fading to the sound of handclaps, the most basic music we have.
Little Seeds is an album that helps a listener clear away the clutter and focus on what matters: the relationships we have with those we love. It isn’t maudlin or sentimental and Michael and Cary Ann are able to get at these feelings in a surprisingly broad variety of ways, lyrically and sonically. They just keep getting better.
Photo credit: Curtis Wayne Millard
Review by: Ken Templeton