These are the best of times for the Americana super duo Shovels and Rope. In a span of five years, the husband and wife team of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have snatched national prominence from the jaws of certain obscurity using little more than a couple of beat up drums and two old guitars. If there ever was a story of outsider success over long shot odds by musicians (in the truest sense of the word) it can be found in the colorful ballad of Shovels and Rope.
One of the most compelling live acts in the game right now, Charleston, SC's Shovels & Rope, are a husband-and-wife duo boasting great songs, beguiling lyrics and alluring chemistry. On their breakout sophomore album, 2012's O' Be Joyful, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent traded instruments, lead vocals and playful punk energy with such casual cool it felt as much like a window onto a back porch sing-along as it did an accomplished studio record. Hailed as a kind of antidote to the creeping Mumford-ization of roots music across the Americana world (especially for their unstoppable anthem, the semi-autobiographical knockout "Birmingham"), all eyes have been on the scrappy pair ever since.Get ready to be rewarded.
Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, the husband-and-wife duo comprising Shovels & Rope, sound like a unified act. Rather than trading leads like most groups with multiple formidable singers, Trent and Hearst sing together in equally leveled harmony, and they’re as dexterous with their instruments as they are with their voices. Although independent and headstrong enough to record much of the follow-up to 2012’s breakthrough debut O’ Be Joyful by themselves in their home studio, Swimmin’ Time, like its name implies, showcases the fluidity of Shovels & Rope.
This South Carolina husband-and-wife duo made ripples in the overcrowded Americana scene with 2012's debut, a set of rowdy originals with a Southern gothic tinge. Swimmin' Time follows on winningly, pitching drawling vocal harmonies against a bluesy, lo-fi backdrop of guitar, piano and drums; a rawer version of the now defunct Civil Wars. The songs, however, are finely spun, whether addressing burnt-out romance (Bridge on Fire) or evoking creepy villains ("I'm a lunatic looking through a keyhole," boasts the narrator of Evil).
It was prescient of Charleston, South Carolina, husband-and-wife duo Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent to opt for a cheekily grim band name to counterbalance how friggin' charming and lovable they'd be onstage. They have yet to capture the spontaneity of their live performances on record (leave that to recent doc The Ballad Of Shovels And Rope), but their sophomore effort certainly gets closer, even as it shows off the duo's newfound musical breadth. Some of the songs, like Evil and Ohio, are dark - both are Tom Waitsy, timely tunes about everyday, politically induced wrongdoing.
Not unlike their 2012 breakthrough album O' Be Joyful, Shovels & Rope's second album for Dualtone, 2014's Swimmin' Time, suggests Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst bought some privately published guidebook on "How To Write and Record Americana Music Like The Professionals" and have carefully followed the template to the letter. The arrangements have the correct balance of rootsy acoustic flavors and messed-up electric noise, the melodies are steeped in tradition but have a self-consciously clever indie rock edge, and the lyrics deal with the usual themes of natural disasters, human failings, small town eccentricities, and our land's checkered past. But if there aren't a lot of surprises in terms of theme and approach, Swimmin' Time confirms that skill of execution is Shovels & Rope's saving grace -- Trent and Hearst are both fine vocalists, and sound truly splendid when they lay out some rough, sweet harmonies.
Over the last two years, a whirlwind of festival sets and opening gigs – plus the extra boost of a trending genre – have helped sweep this married folk duo's rudimentary guitar and junkyard drum setup out of Charleston, South Carolina, and into the warm glow of the spotlight. Their latest LP shirks the kind of Americana that had Mumford & Sons selling out stadiums, despite how easy it would've been for Shovels to keep digging. Instead, Swimmin' Time is triumphant in its confidence and variety: a headstrong attempt to make the band's shoobie-doo-wop sensibilities ("Coping Mechanism"; "Bridge on Fire") and ominous ruminations ("Evil"; "Ohio") play nice with their established Appalachian charm.
Charleston husband and wife duo Shovels & Rope saw a sudden increase in popularity last year as word spread of their intense live show. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent’s home-brewed feel and palpable chemistry drew in the crowds, who eventually worked their way back to the couple’s delightful 2012 LP, O’ Be Joyful. The follow-up, Swimmin’ Time, presents an opportunity to sink the hook into fans won over during the last year.
Having taken the Americana universe by storm via O’ Be Joyful, Shovels & Rope finds itself in the unenviable position of having to follow up a record that will always stand as a signpost on the road of their career. Not that singers/songwriters/instrumentalists Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent seem particularly worried about the pressure on Swimmin’ Time, the pair’s third LP together. Indeed, there’s a confidence here, even a swagger, that denotes a band that knows what it likes and how to make it happen.