Reasons to be cheerful: What a nice surprise when among albums you are to review there is a real find: A band that is right up your street and you wonder how it can be that you did not know about them already. This is what happened when I listened to Shovels & Rope.
This husband and wife duo from South Carolina were new to me, but 'Little Seeds' is in fact their fifth album and they have won two AMA Awards. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent also had an award-winning documentary made about them, entitled 'The Ballad of Shovels and Rope'.
Their songwriting is top notch. The subject matter is serious yet the album sounds upbeat. The songs are varied, stretching from country to folk and blues and it is all catchy as hell. Listen to the lyrics however and you realise that tough things have been happening in the couple's life.
'Invisible Man' is about Alzheimer's, which Michael's father has. Disguised as a singalong White Stripes rocker, it is a perfect matter-of-fact description of the effects of the disease from the point of view of the patient: “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. When I open my mouth I got something to say, it's the same conversation I had yesterday...” The songs acknowledges the frustration, yet anger and indignation are intelligently absent.
'This Ride' is dedicated to a friend of the couple who died in an accident. First a lady with a charming accent (the friend's mother?) talks about her son being born in a police car. The song then describes life with all its ups and downs. A beautiful synth line plays under the simple melody and the lady returns, stating that she does not want to be sad all the time, after which the song ends with quiet handclaps.
Cary Ann and Michael live in Charleston and the song “BWYR' (“Black lives, white lives, yellow lives, red”) deals with the 2015 church shooting that took place there. The song addresses hate crimes, racism, gun violence and fear. All we hear are echo-y vocals and very little guitar. The song is all the more impressive for it.
If singles were still a thing every song on this album could be one. 'Buffalo Nickel' again brings the White Stripes to mind and is loud, gothic and swampy. 'Johnny Come Outside' is bluesier and is an earworm about a boy who is never happy and never sad; the effects of too much medication.
'San Andreas Fault Line Blues' describes the earthquake-prone zone in California. All the songs describe without judging. The underlying message is very much that life is wonderful despite the difficulties one encounters.
My favourite song on the album is the most country-tinged track, 'St Anne's Parade'. Cary Ann sounds like Tammy Wynette on this one. It is a travelogue, again focussing on the wonders of life: “Don't seem to freeze too much down in New Orleans, but the rain can sure wash out the streets. We crossed the snowline, man it was just in time. They're digging them out everywhere North of the Chesapeake”. To me this is Townes Van Zandt-like simplicity and brilliance.
This brilliant album makes me want to delve further into Shovels & Rope's back catalogue (check out their cover of Bruce Springsteen's 'Johnny 99'!). I will definitely go and see them live when the opportunity comes up. The band will play concerts in the U.K. during February 2017.