Cary Ann Hearst & Michael Trent – Shovels & Rope
One of the most noted up-and-comers in South Carolina’s music scene over the past few years, singer/songwriter Cary Ann Hearst boasts one of the most powerful country/soul/punk voices you are ever likely to hear, with top-notch songwriting chops to boot. Her debut record Dust & Bones sounds like an alt. country classic and bares favorable comparisons to artists like Lucinda Williams, Neko Case and Dolly Parton (minus the kitsch).
While that record holds some remarkably good songs (the field hollering title track, a Neko Case-inspired bit of country noir called “Pocahontas,” and an absolutely gorgeous re-telling of the love story in Jonathan Safron Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close called “Dresden Snow”), her new project with fiance Michael Trent (of the Charleston indie rock band The Films) is, although not dissimilar from her solo work, a far more intriguing project.
The record, called Shovels and Rope, was recorded with the relatively well-known producer Joey Waronker (Eels, Priscilla Ahn), but its hard to imagine what effect, if any, he had the proceedings. Opening with Hearst counting off a foot-stomp intro (left, right, left right left) to another one of her field holler-style compositions, “Gasoline,” the record rarely reaches for any sort of studio polish or consistency, and instead focuses on capturing the beauty of two (or more) people making music together. The net effect is as if two or three members of The Band, having drunk a bit too much even for them, are filtering in and out of a room and singing their damndest. Rarely is there more here than a strumming guitar and the two vocalists singin’, stompin’ and clappin’–every now and then we an another string instrument (only a handful of tracks feature an electric guitar), Trent’s harmonica or some barroom piano, but that’s pretty much it. Among such backing, the songs stand tall and proud.
The aforementioned opening cut gets by on a lot of stomping, a few barebones guitar chords and Trent’s wheezy, Dylan-style harmonica. Neither singer here gets too much time singing by themselves–the record features almost omnipresent harmony vocals that seem to simultaneously add to the beauty and the unsettling, backwoods-creepiness to the whole affair. Hearst definitely has the edge vocally, but Trent possesses an undeniably pleasing and twangy tenor that fits the mood of this rough hewn material quite well. The sonic creepiness, in addition to suiting the two musicians, is appropriate for a lot of their lyrical material as well. The opening cut “Gasoline” is a harrowing take of America’s dependence on oil, the next song (”Boxcar”) recounts the tale of a woman sacrificing her life so that her man can get away (from an apparent crime they both just committed), and then the next song is a character portrait of a down-on-her-luck woman who has been “fucked to bits/all ass and tits.” It’s that kind of a record.
The lo-fi nature of this recording should not be understated. It reminds me most, despite its largely acoustic nature, of those early White Stripes records before that duo broke into the mainstream. They share that wholesale embrace of roots music combined with the strongly independent, DIY ethos that pervades from it. It’s kind of like those early field recordings of folk and blues musicians, where the recording sounds simply like one or two people making music in a room, nothing more. The songs and the musicianship have to be good, even if they are simple, because there is nothing to hide behind.
I had mixed feelings upon listening to this material; after all, if Hearst is ever to break out of the local scene into the national spotlight, she is going to need more records like the sonically sharp, wide-ranging Dust & Bones LP. However, the more I listen to Shovels and Rope, the more I see the point of the record–to separate as much of the wheat from the chafe of the recording process as possible. And the record, for whatever of the myriad of faults you want to point out about it, does that pretty damn well.
[Sidenote: In a nod to their local scene, the last track is a moving down-tempo recording of “Mexico,” a song written by Charleston-based Jay Clifford and recorded by his former, almost-made-it indie pop troupe Jump Little Children. It is a beautiful, beautiful song that Hearst & Trent deliver with haunting conviction.]