O’ Be Joyful is the second record from the married, boot-stomping folk duo, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent. But it’s their first offering as Shovels & Rope—the newly established moniker actually taken from the title of their first record together. The album has been available for stream (as long as you are willing to spread the word via Twitter or Facebook) for the past few weeks but dropped officially this past Wednesday via Dualtone Records. The “shovel” and the “rope”—tools of the trade for vagabonds and explorers during that romanticized period in American history when manifest destiny was not a punch-line—are the perfect images for their collaboration. If you can picture the dust blowing across the land and hear the accompanying soundtrack rising out of the whiskey-soaked bar, you are probably on your way to understanding the magic of this band.
These are two Charleston, SC musicians that came together over mutual appreciation of one another’s tunes; Trent was the principal songwriter and singer for The Films, a bratty, garage rock band that wrote two very solid albums, and Hearst was singing about the grittier side of country life in late-night bars around Charleston. My familiarity with The Films runs deep; I saw them open for Mando Diao in 2006 and later had a few friends take over their apartment lease in Brooklyn. In all honesty, with his garage rock background, I was a bit skeptical to think of Trent in a more folk-like context. It turns out Hearst’s influence may have been just what the doctor ordered. Hearst describes how she and Trent came together below:
“After I had finished school, I was starting to get out on the road a little. Michael and I met on tour with Jump Little Children in Athens, Georgia at the historic Georgia Theater. He was in a sexy, nasty little rock and roll band from Denver, CO. I had been hanging out singing in bars in Charleston, half drunk most the time, not really up to much. I felt at times like I was rusting in place, waiting for some great adventure to come along. When The Films moved to Charleston, with their ameri-trash glam rock-a-mount cowboy swagger, I was as good as done for. Michael became one of my favorite songwriters.”
What’s amazing about this record is that it was recorded partly on the road—both literally (on the RV) and figuratively (in hotel rooms and such)—with a single microphone. By doing so they achieve this crazed, frenetic authenticity (at least that’s my romantic notion) and prove that sometimes it’s better to go out with your boots on, shed the drab of the studio, and create music in the vast expanses and tiny nooks of the world.
In an interview with MTV Hive, Trent says, “I wasn’t trying to make something that was ultra lo-fi; I wanted it to sound good, but at the same time I don’t feel like everything has to be so meticulous and just so.” It may not be intentionally meticulous but it’s certainly not lacking in the kind of quality you expect from a studio LP. One of the more poignant lyrics on the record comes on the opening track as Hearst sings “It ain’t what you got, it’s what you make.” Shovels & Rope have come together to make a brilliant contribution to the 21st century Americana movement that is now thundering its way across our modern landscape, and they did it on their terms.
O’ Be Joyful opens with “Birmingham,” an undeniable single that showcases Cary Ann Hearst’s voice—it’s simultaneously grainy and pitch-perfect even when she goes nearly hoarse—and the ability of this rag-tag couple to harmonize and find use for multiple instruments (maracas, organ, harmonica, etc). The song is about the day that Hearst and Trent decided to take their first collection of songs (Shovels & Rope) for a ride, embrace the idea of a duo, and discard the notion that they needed more musicians to star touring. “Birmingham” and the first part of the record (including “Keeper” and the majority of “O’ Be Joyful”) sound most like that previous record in their attempt to make country cool, for once.
“O’ Be Joyful” gets campfire with banjo on top of hand-claps, but throws a curve ball by adding smoky guitar licks à la Black Keys and rolling bass, an ominous foreshadowing for what’s to come on the record. “Tickin’ Bomb” and “Hail, Hail” fully breach new ground by reaching into the Delta swamp and mucking up blues licks and horns, the kind of heavy shit that causes your denim to stick to your skin. “Hail, Hail” has fuzzed-out electric guitar and a sly trumpet befitting a Serpico-esque scene where a private investigator leans back in his chair, smoke billowing from the ashtray, and invites a sultry woman in a red dress into his office.
Many of the songs require an initial leap of faith for one reason or another. While the songs on Shovels & Rope were largely predictable in terms of sound, O’ Be Joyful will often leave you piqued.
Two of the more interesting tracks on the record are track 8, “Carnival,” and track 6, “Kembra’s Got The Cabbage Moth Blues,” mostly because they don’t really seem to belong. On “Carnival” we find Hearst’s voice subdued and controlled while an eerie, circular piano creates an other-worldly back drop. It’s an aptly named song considering carnivals are unequivocally creepy. “Kembra,” however, is a deep-fried song that kicks off with a hilarious live intro—a bumpkin announcer introduces the band and says “…We like to listen to the entertainer, not what you found behind the fridge”—before Hearst starts spit-firing agricultural imagery with the speed and randomness of a rooster loose on the farm. This is definitely the most “country” song on the record but it seems like satire—this band has to be making a joke at the expense of modern-day country when they end a song with the words “shrimp and grits.”
While Hearst often seems to be the vocal star of the band (probably because the female voice is arguably just more powerful in general); when Michael Trent takes the reins, he shines. One of the standout tracks on the record is “Lay Low,” a slow-going, banjo-only lament with Trent at the helm for the first time all record. The harmonies are beautiful and soul-stirringly honest and you want to be a part of their love story when Trent sings, “If it gets too lonely, I’ll follow you around in this tune.” While they sound earnest on the record, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen them sweating into the same microphone inches away from being cheek to cheek.
The great part about this couple is the musical equality—neither member is the Meg White of the duo—and the balance of their styles. Trent’s rock and roll tenor and Hearst’s country wail marry up well, so to speak. Folk? Country? Rock? Blues? Alt-Country or some hybrid? Shovels & Rope play music for outlaws and their live shows are a thumping, rollicking good time and the tender moments, when they touch on dark subjects with a heartfelt twang, are beautiful. Whether you like the newer, grassroots rock and folk bands making it happen in an old-fashioned way (Deer Tick, Dawes, Jonny Corndawg, etc) or you long for the country of old (Merle, Johnny, Hank), when it was dangerous and less sanitized, you will appreciate Shovels & Rope. And if you’re like me, you will love them.
This is a 4-star record written by a 5-star band. If you get the chance to see them live, I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
Favorite Tracks: “Birmingham,” “Lay Low,” “O’ Be Joyful,” “Cavalier”
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