Reviewed by: Asher Wolf
Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst scoff in the face of parental stereotypes. The Americana duo Shovels & Rope has recently produced a child in addition to their new LP (appropriately titled Little Seeds), but they sure as hell haven’t settled down. For this project, the two have dialed up the grit and volume, diverging from their reputation as acoustic sentimentals. The band has always been fueled by the tension between their rootsy exterior and the electrified punk bent lurking just beneath the surface, but Little Seeds is rightly defined by this bluesy, distorted, balls-out spirit.
The album leaps out of the gate with the thumping country blues number “I Know” and proceeds to venture further into rock territory with “Botched Execution”. The track opens at a breakneck pace, with an adamant tambourine-driven beat egging on the relentless string of heavy-hitting bars (“They botched my execution back in 1996…”), and uses the momentum to launch into a chorus laden with soaring harmonies – an astral hook reminiscent of the Brooklyn Indie rock act White Rabbits. “Buffalo Nickel” follows a conjures a similar intensity, tapping into the charismatic dirtiness of pre-commercialized Black Keys.
That being said, the duo still devote about half of the record to slower, pensive tunes, often acoustic. “St. Anne’s Parade” and “Missionary Ridge” are both adorned with delicate mandolin strums, bell-like tones percolating through the spacious texture and granting a traditional tint to the bare mix. But even on the heavier, electrified tracks, the band’s folk influence is apparent in the song form and modest harmonic language; a willingness to stick to the same few chords in order to devote attentive space to the tales and portraits evident in the lyrics and the expressive subtleties of their delivery. Shovels & Rope also follow in the folk tradition of shamelessly recycling musical ideas. Listening beneath the production, many of the tracks on Little Seeds are small deviations from folk standards, and some include extended direct quotations. The verse of “Mourning Song”, for instance, is a precise melodic and harmonic clone of the Gillian Welch classic “Wayside (Back in Time)” (though to be sure, Gillian ripped it from Steve Earle).
Fortunately, this lack of inventiveness is thoroughly negated by the duo’s innovative style and powerhouse delivery. The twin vocals for which they are known are synchronized with regard to many qualities other than pitch and harmony. They sing together with the pungent character and idiosyncrasy typically exclusive to a solo performance, as if both of their cracks and blemishes were meticulously designed to complement. The emotional force compounded by their reckless shouts and growls is enough to level the listener alone, and a potent cocktail results as the duo fits their collective roar into the new aesthetic scheme pioneered on Little Seeds.