Music · Reviews

Shovels & Rope: Little Seeds

I stumbled across the alt-Americana duo Shovels & Rope about six months ago, and have been in love with them ever since. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent mix folk, country-rock, blues, and punk in ways that are hard to define (a down-home White Stripes maybe?), but easy to identify with. Yes, they’ve moved a bit beyond — but not outgrown — the “two beat up drums and two old guitars.” But there is still the same urgency in the vocals and immediacy and rawness in the instruments. Only this time, there is more depth. And that might make Little Seeds their best offering yet.

The husband and wife pair have always excelled at barn burners, and Little Seeds doesn’t disappoint here. It opens with two tracks that blow the roof off. The down-and-dirty “I Know” is an tongue-in-cheek warning against selling out (“I know exactly where you got that sound / See you in a year on your way back down) and sounds a lot like something T.Rex might have kicked out. It’s followed by the rapid fire vocals of “Botched Execution” that tells the tale of escaped killer on the run (an S&R special). And the mid-album dirty blues of “Buffalo Nickel” sticks in your head, especially the call-and-response chorus. Each of these tracks would have felt at home on any previous S&R album.

But one of the criticism of Trent & Hearst is that they are better performers than songwriters. And that is where this albums steps up its game.  This is most apparently in the down-tempo numbers, but not exclusive to them.

“St. Anne’s Parade” is an aching mix of joy and grief. It follows the Krewe of St. Anne in New Orleans as they take their annual early morning pilgrimage to scatter into the Mississippi the ashes of those they have lost in the year previous. Backed by a sparse mandolin, Hearst and Trent’s voices break as they sing: “And I’m up too damn early in the morning / Watching the world around me come alive / And I need more fingers to count the ones I love / This life might be too good to survive.”

Also of note are two mid-album cuts, written by Trent for his father who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  The first is a gentle ballad, sweet and sad — if predicable — called “Mourning Song.” “You were always on my mind and even though now I am gone / I taught you these four chords so you could sing your mourning song.” But really, it’s the second track that stands out, a surprisingly uptempo number called “Invisible Man” that is simultaneously angry, funny, and desperate.  “I can’t decide if I wanna laugh or cry / Cause everything’s confusing and I don’t know why / Wait, I do know why…. I figured it out / But it’s gone again before I can open my mouth.”

There are several other solid tracks: “Missionary Ridge” comes together fine as a Civil War ballad, somehow pulling off the neat trick of not sounding like backhanded praise of the “lost cause;” “The Last Hawk” sounds like it could have come off a basement tape from The Band; “This Ride,” the album’s final track, is dedicated to a local musician and friend of the band who was lost earlier in 2016. The sparse guitar, with only soft hand claps for percussion, allow the twin vocals to really pop, and the lyrics capture much of the theme of the album: that life is hard and often too short, which is all the more reason to cling and cherish those close to us and celebrate the good when it comes. “It’s just like Old Yeller and Lonesome Dove / When you hate how it ends, but you can’t get enough.” That’s life. That’s this ride.

Lastly, a word about the most difficult song on this album to talk about. “Bwyr” is a spoken word piece, and obviously a deeply personal one at that, that draws on the Emmanuel AME church shooting in their hometown of Charleston. It’s a song that seems to be about both the horrors of gun violence in America, as well as a plea to heal our racial division. Needless to say, this is a lot for one four minute song to contain. So it’s not surprising that Bwyr comes up short. On one hand, the repeated “black lives, white lives, yellow lives, red” make it come too close for comfort to sounding like an All Lives Matter litany. On the other, they also touch on deep issues of pride and fear that separate us. (“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.”) And in the end, it’s just unrealistic to expect a song to present an easy solution to problems that have vexed us since forever, mostly because, well, there are no easy solutions. Sometimes the only thing we can do is “join hands and share the dread.” “Bwyr” is far from a perfect song, and S&R‘s reach exceeded their grasp in this one. But I give them loads of credit for reaching. Settling for how things are is why we’re in this mess in the first place.

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