Album Review – Shovels & Rope’s ‘Little Seeds’

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One of the most exciting duos in Americana and folks realms is back with new music. Shovels & Rope is a duo from Charleston, South Carolina, consisting of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. The husband-wife duo absolutely blew me away the last time they released new music. Their third studio album Swimmin’ Time in 2014 was solidly one of the top ten best albums of 2014 in Americana. It’s a great album from start to finish, full of both murder and some catchy tunes in-between. I thought it was criminally under-looked by the general public and critics. Fortunately in anticipation of their new album Little Seeds, a lot more people are taking notice of this duo. I knew it would be difficult for them to top Swimmin’ Time and after listening to their new album Little Seeds, it’s certainly not as good. But it’s still an album with a lot of good moments.

One song I enjoyed from the first listen is “The Last Hawk.” It encapsulates everything I enjoy about this duo: the harmonies, the thoughtful lyrics and instrumentation that compliment it perfectly. The free and easy-going nature of the song will undoubtedly make it a fan favorite. Songs like “Botched Execution” and “Buffalo Nickel” are definitely what we’re used to hearing from the folk duo and picks up where they left off on Swimmin’ Time. It reaffirms what I’ve thought about Shovels & Rope: they’re at their best when singing about death (or in the case of “Botched Execution” it’s escaping death) and other dark subject matters. They just seem to capture that southern gothic, murder ballad feel better than almost anybody else. The instrumentation and production on this album is at it’s absolute best on “Buffalo Nickel,” showing off the duo’s eccentric, creepy folk sound.

As a history buff, it was impossible for me to not enjoy “Missionary Ridge.” Combining Americana and history is quick way to this critic’s heart. It’s about the Battle of Missionary Ridge in the Civil War where the Union defeated the confederacy and seized control of Tennessee. It was an important moment in the war, as it helped set up Sherman’s March to the Sea. As the song says, you shouldn’t be whistling Dixie on Missionary Ridge, as you don’t want to awake the defeated souls that lie. “I Know” is a catchy song with a decidedly more rock-driven approach than what we’re used to hearing from Shovels & Rope. The song itself seems to be driven by a lust for revenge and exposing something for what it is. It’s certainly an ear-catching song in every way. The duo seems to reflect on their career and their time spent on the road over the years on “St. Anne’s Parade.” The instrumentation really shines on this one, especially the mandolin.

The beginning of this album is really strong and I thought it was on pace to be better than Swimmin’ Time. Unfortunately about halfway through the album it starts to hit bumps. Take for example “Johnny Come Outside.” The duo tackles an interesting subject here: It seems to be about different children and how society and parents try to correct their behavior and attitudes through various methods (drugs, therapy, etc.). The duo’s effort to tackle something like this is admirable, but the song ultimately has no conclusion or answer. The same can be said of “BWYR.” Shovels & Rope try to tackle the increased violence against various groups of people over the past couple of years. The problem is this song says nothing. What ultimately hurts the song is it tries to straddle a line of neutrality between various groups and as a result the song goes nowhere. It’s pointless activism that comes off more as window dressing than having something meaningful to say. Then you have the inclusion of “San Andreas Fault Blues” on the album. It kind of puzzles me, as it’s a song about having the homesick blues for California. It just doesn’t fit a band from Charleston, South Carolina to sing about missing California. The song is not necessarily bad, but I just don’t understand why it’s here.

“Eric’s Birthday” sets up the final song on the album, “This Ride.” It’s about the birth of a child, appropriate since the duo just had a child this past year. Just like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and David Nail did on their last albums, the song reflects on this monumental moment in their lives. The song’s message seems to be about how life is a beautiful mess and at the end of the day you have to take the bad moment to get the great too. I wish the duo had spent more time diving into this theme on the album instead of getting off track with activism songs and themes that just don’t seem to fit.

Little Seeds is by no means a bad album, but it’s clearly a step down from the excellent Swimmin’ Time. What this album ultimately lacks is consistency and cohesiveness. While the instrumentation reflects it, the lyrics and themes do not do this throughout the album. One of the traps this album falls into at times too is a sonic appeal that distracts from what the song is saying. They sound good, but say nothing once you peel the song back and really listen to the lyrics. It’s one of the main problems some people have with Americana, but isn’t talked about enough. Still this album has some really good songs and there certainly isn’t a lack of effort on the part of Shovels & Rope. They tried some things and they just didn’t work. It happens to the best of artists.

Grade: 7/10

 

Recommend? – For fans of Shovels & Rope, yes

Album Highlights: Botched Execution, The Last Hawk, Buffalo Nickel, Missionary Ridge

Bad Songs: BWYR

Wallpaper: Mourning Song, Invisible Man


Stream The Entire Album Below:

Album Review – Banditos’ Self-Titled Debut Album Blends Southern Rock & Country Brilliantly

Banditos Album

Man am I glad I came across this band! They’re a fairly new group called Banditos, made up of six-members all in their twenties and originally from Birmingham, Alabama. The group formed back in 2010 and includes Corey Parsons (vocalist/guitarist), Stephen Pierce (vocalist/banjo player), Randy Wade (drums), Mary Beth Richardson (vocals), Jeffrey Salter (guitarist) and Danny Vines (bassist). They’re signed to Bloodshot Records and I have to share with you the story of how the label came to sign them, from the point of view of Bloodshot:

Back in March 2014 we found ourselves at one of those fly-by-night, hole-in-the-wall bars that sprout like skunkweed on Sixth Street in Austin, TX during the height of SXSW crazy. The only other patrons were Bud Light-swilling bros watching a blowout college basketball game; the sound system at this place was a painful mix of all treble and reverb; and the noises oozing out of the PA during another band’s set were not unlike the distorted echoes of the soundtrack to Suspiria (and not in a good way). We wish we were kidding.

Then the six-piece Banditos took the stage, and even though they themselves were a little intimidating – all hair, denim, and stoic determination – the sounds they managed to conjure from two overworked speakers were fresh, raw, and spectacular. We were instantly blown away and immediately started concocting ways to lure them into our fold…

That’s a pretty neat story and it’s always nice to hear stories like this where a label gives a band the shot they deserve. Despite being together since 2010, they just now released their debut album, which is self-titled. Previously they had released multiple EPs. The most simple way to describe their music would be a combination of southern rock and country music. But if you dig deeper you realize there’s a lot of genres influencing their music. You can hear influences from 60s blues, garage rock, bluegrass, soul and even some 50s doo-wop. This all comes together to create an absolutely thrilling album.

The album kicks off with “The Breeze,” which gives you a great taste right away of the fusion of southern rock and country music that the Banditos make. It’s fast-paced, rollicking and pulls you right in. Banditos showcase their bluegrass side with “Waitin’,” as a banjo helps play the song in. Mary Beth Richardson takes the lead on vocals on this song and her voice reminds me a lot of Shovels & Rope’s Cary Ann Hearst and a touch of Tami Neilson. Richardson’s voice is powerful, yet has a roughness that gives her voice character. You could pretty much throw any note at her and she could nail it. The next song “Golden Grease” is an interesting song about a man struggling with his inner self and wondering why a woman continues to be so cold to him. It certainly paints an interesting image in the listeners’ heads, making you wonder if the man himself or the woman is causing more pain to him. The instrumentation on this song is fantastic.

Remember before when I said Richardson is a talented vocalist? It becomes pretty clear on “No Good,” a song about a woman with a bad reputation that is beautifully written. Richardson’s vocals on this song are absolutely phenomenal and it’s just something you have to hear for yourself. Words cannot do it justice. This is arguably the best song on the album and one of the best performances I’ve heard from a female vocalist this year. “Ain’t It Hard” features more great songwriting and vocals. What impresses me so much about the songwriting not just on this song, but the entire album is how mystique surrounds each line and you don’t know what’s coming next. It’s especially evident on this song, with the instrumentation helping create a mysterious air throughout it.  

One of the most fast-paced songs on the album and really one of the most fun is “Still Sober (After All These Beers).” It’s about a man who wants to quit his lifestyle of getting wasted every night and waking up with a stranger in his bed after a one-night stand. It all started when he was 17 and it has spiraled out of control since then. Despite wanting to get on the path of the straight and narrow, he continues down the path he’s on. This is definitely one of my favorite drinking songs of the year. “Long Gone, Anyway” is a light-hearted tune about death. Yes, I know this is an oxymoron. But it makes sense. The moral of the song is death can come at any time, so it’s important to live life to the fullest and to not be afraid of death. It’s a short song with a simple point that is conveyed well.

Banditos Band

Richardson takes the lead vocals on “Old Ways,” a song about a woman waiting for a man to open his eyes after a night of passion. She’s hoping that he enjoyed the night as much as her and that he says she stayed until morning. By the end of the song, it’s revealed that the man had a trouble past and that this woman is here to wipe that away. It’s a unique love song that shows a lot of love in the lyrics and the vocals. “Can’t Get Away” is about a man on the road coming home to his love at home. He realizes after contemplating calling up some other girls that he’s already got a girl at home that he loves a lot. The instrumentation is quite catchy on this one and makes it easy to get this song stuck in your head. But this is a good thing!

One of the most country songs on the album is “Blue Mosey #2” and again I’m impressed with the songwriting. It’s a song about a man who has watched his friends move on, is alone and doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do next. Everything in this song works together well to create the perfect mood and feeling Banditos are going for on this song. Just like “Long Gone, Anyway,” “Cry Baby Cry” is a short song with a simple theme. It’s about a man helping a woman through a breakup by telling her all of the stuff she’s going to go through now and how tears will fall no matter how hard you try to hold back. It’s a fun song that is easy to get into. The final song on the album is “Preachin’ To The Choir.” And folks it’s another doozy of a song. It’s about a man who has clearly went through pain and he’s not in any mood to take advice from anyone, as by the end of the song he tells everyone they’re just preaching to the choir. He wants to deal with this his way and no one else’s way. It’s a powerful song and closes this excellent album out with a bang.

Banditos’ self-titled debut album is one hell of a way for this group to introduce themselves to everyone. It’s strong throughout, from beginning to end. It can be really easy to get wrapped up in the melting pot of instrumentation that is so great on this album. But then you would miss out on the best part and that is the lyrics. They are so well-written, but like I said if you don’t listen closely you could miss out on them easily. It took me a few listens to grasp them, but once I did I could feel this album. And it feels pretty damn good. I’m not sure what genre you should put them under, but who cares? This is just awesome music that you need to hear. I’m excited about this group, as I think their future is very bright. Banditos is one of my favorite discoveries of 2015 and you definitely need to check them out.

Grade: 10/10

 

Video: Shovels & Rope Perform “Coping Mechanism” on Letterman

 

First Wade Bowen on Conan earlier this week and now another great country act got a chance to perform on the national stage. The fantastic duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope performed “Coping Mechanism,” a finalist for Country Perspective’s 2014 Song of the Year, off of their phenomenal 2014 album Swimmin’ Time, which was also a finalist for Country Perspective’s 2014 Album of the Year, on the Late Show with David Letterman last night. They knocked it out of the park of course. Based on the reactions I saw on Twitter, there were a lot of other people who felt the same. I hope they picked up a bunch of new fans and I find it hard to fathom how anyone can’t be a fan of this duo after hearing their music. When they found out they were going to play on Letterman again, they were pretty thrilled about it.

If you haven’t heard their Swimmin’ Time album, I highly recommend you go check it out. Also what did you think of their performance here?

Album Review – Shovels & Rope’s Swimmin’ Time

When the Civil Wars announced they were officially splitting, there was now a void for a powerful duo in country music. No, Florida Georgia has never been nor will be a powerful duo anywhere close to the Civil Wars. Well that void was temporary because the duo that is more than capable of taking their spot has officially emerged: Shovels & Rope. One thing that make Shovels & Rope more cohesive and less likely to split is they are a husband and wife duo. Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst show no signs of their marriage nor band breaking apart anytime soon. They’re starting to become more and more popular too, as last week they appeared on Conan and continue to receive praise from critics abroad. I’m about to praise them also because their new album Swimmin’ Time is one hell of a record.

The Best Songs on the Album

The first thing I look at when analyzing duo is how well they harmonize. And Shovels & Rope certainly get an A+ in this department. Their harmonies are absolutely flawless throughout the entire album. The best example of their harmonies shining is on “After The Storm.” Hearst’s vocals are especially strong on this song as she shows great emotion in the exact spots there should be emotion. The inclusion of the harmonica in this song is also a nice touch. But their harmonies are showcased front and center in the last-minute or so in the song when there is no instruments playing and it’s just the two harmonizing together. It hits you right in the gut.

Shovels & Rope show their silly side in “Fish Assassin.” When preparing to listen to a song with a title like this you really don’t know what to expect. What you get with it is a short, but fast and upbeat song. The song is actually about fishing and then frying said fish up. Pretty funny stuff. It’s also a song you can’t help, but get up and dance to as you listen. The tambourine and drum combination make for an infectious beat that’s easy to get stuck in your head. The song is only one minute and twenty-three seconds long, but this duo knows how to pack a punch in a small song. Of course then they follow this song up with a song that is even better in “Coping Mechanism.” This song has the total package. The vocals and instrumentation are absolutely stellar. This is a throwback country song with 50s doo-wop  that makes you want to bob your head back and forth. I guess that would make it Americana? Whatever you want to label it, this song is awesome. The harmonies are so great on this song that you can’t help but smile as you listen to it. It’s hard to properly describe how good this song is and it’s best just to listen to it multiple times.

It’s hard enough to have one song on an album that has the whole package, but Shovels & Rope have second song on the album that shines in all facets too. “Swimmin’ Time” is a song about dealing with incoming consequences and is basically a warning song to a person about to receive payback. There’s also an underlying sinister attitude to the song that really gives it a bite (really there’s underlying sinister attitude on a lot of song on this album). The harmonies and instrumentation are excellent of course. “Stono River Blues” is a bluesy rock influenced song with balls. Just before the two-minute mark there is a guitar solo that is face melting. Just a fantastic arrangement of instruments on this song. Shovels & Rope show off their storytelling chops in “Mary Ann & One Eyed Dan.” It’s a song that tells the story about two people falling in love with each other. When Mary and Dan “talk” in the song, Trent voices Dan and Hearst voices Mary, making for a cool dynamic between the two throughout the song. It’s a real upbeat, love song that incorporates the horn instruments quite well.

The Worst Songs on the Album

Nope.

The Rest of the Album

“The Devil Is All Around” is a song about making mistakes in life and finding ways to fix them. I thought it was a solid way to kick off the album, although it took me a few listens to figure out exactly what the song is about. They follow this up with the heartbreak song, “Bridge On Fire.” The lyrics do a great job of painting a picture in the listener’s head of how the breakup transpired. The mood and pacing of the song is spot on. The dark side of Shovels & Rope is shown in “Evil.” There’s a constant presence of the steel guitar in the background that really gives it a dark vibe and sets the tone perfectly. The song is what the title says it is, it’s about evil and sinister topics such as child abuse and dead dogs on the side of the road being mentioned. That’s how evil this song gets. They get just as dark in the song “Ohio.” The horns and electric guitar makes for a real interesting combination. I’m really not sure what the song is about, but I know I like it. It’s more of an instrumental song. There’s a reference to a rich man in Dallas making money off suckers in Ohio towards the end of the song that gives it a sinister mysteriousness mood to the song.

Great harmonic play is present again in “Pinned,” a song about learning lessons from others. The lighter side of Shovels & Rope can be found in “Save The World.” It’s a folksy song about two people falling in love that feels genuine and heartfelt coming from a husband and wife duo. They go back to the dark side in the final track, “Thresher.” This song is about the mysterious sinking of a boat tragically killing people. It has a real dark vibe. The song just feels so haunted that you can hardly tell what’s happening. You kind of get lost in the music on the first listen. Upon second listen you’ll be able to appreciate the fantastic songwriting. I think it’s a good song to cap off the album.

Overall Thoughts

My only regret with Shovels & Rope is that I didn’t listen to their music sooner. This is a pair of musicians that simply understand what country music is all about. It’s not about partying and drinking beers on a tailgates nor driving on a dirt road. It’s about telling a story that the everyday person can relate to and feel as they listen. This is a group that has so many influences from other genres that you honesty can’t even place a label on them. The closest label I could put on them is alt-country. The only other group I’ve listened to in recent years that I could say is similar in the fact you can’t place a concise label on them is The Mavericks. When you’re compared to The Mavericks you know you’re pretty damn great. I’m very picky about giving an album a 10 because I feel an album and band truly need to earn it with their music. I just gave a 10 last week to Lucette’s new album and didn’t expect to consider giving a 10 out again so soon. But there’s no other choice with an excellent album like this one. Go buy Swimmin’ Time. You won’t regret it. This is a Country Perspective Album of the Year candidate without a doubt.

Grade: 10/10

To preview and purchase Swimmin’ Time, click here.