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.
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: