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 – Lori McKenna’s ‘The Bird & The Rifle’

Lori McKenna has been recording and releasing music for nearly 16 years, but with her songwriting success over the past year, now is as good a time as ever for her to release an album. McKenna co-wrote Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey, a song which captured the attention of pretty much everyone. And most recently, Tim McGraw’s “Humble & Kind”, written solely by McKenna, topped the airplay charts and has gone onto be a career hit for McGraw. McKenna teamed up with producer Dave Cobb with The Bird & The Rifle, Lori McKenna delivers nine brand new songs as well as her own recording of “Humble & Kind.”

The Bird & The Rifle begins with the heartbreaking “Wreck You.” McKenna sings from the first person point of view of a wife struggling to find out why her marriage has been falling apart. She’s not exactly sure where things went wrong or what she needs to do to change and fix it, but she’s aware that something is definitely wrong. You can hear the pain in McKenna’s voice as she sings. This is followed by the excellent title track for the album. An acoustic driven story song, Lori McKenna sings of another troubled marriage. She compares the wife to a bird and the husband to a rifle, two things that don’t go together well. While the bird can sing beautiful songs that rifle loves, the bird has the urge to fly but seems to be held down by the rifle’s fear and anger. “Something about the bird her spreading those wings always seems to bring the rifle out in him.” It’s a tried and true story, but McKenna writes and delivers it with a new sense of purpose and heart.

Lori McKenna visits small town life with “Giving Up on Your Hometown.” A bit more upbeat song than the first two, but this song takes a solemn look returning to your hometown and not recognizing how it has changed. People have passed, old hot spots have been torn down, and the place simply doesn’t feel like home anymore. Even with a more slightly upbeat production, the song doesn’t drift any faster than a mid-tempo ballad. “Halfway Home” tells the story of a woman who’s stuck in relationships with men who are unreliable or around for only one night. The song encourages the woman to keep moving on because she’s halfway home, half of the way to finding the true love she deserves. “Halfway Home” is another excellent vocal delivery from Lori McKenna.

I like Tim McGraw’s recording of “Humble & Kind”, but Lori McKenna’s recording on The Bird & The Rifle is even better. Maybe it’s due to the fact that McKenna is the lone writer of the song, but she sings the lyrics with such a conviction that isn’t present in McGraw’s recording. “Humble & Kind” is a song with fantastic lyrics, and hearing Lori McKenna sing them is a gift for the listener. “We Were Cool” is another song of nostalgia. Lori McKenna reminisces about growing up and how she and her friends felt cool riding in the older brother’s cool car. With an album full of poignant heartbreaking songs (and following the excellent “Humble & Kind”), “We Were Cool” gets a little lost in the shuffle, but it’s still a fun song to listen to, and it doesn’t make it a bad song by any stretch of the imagination.

Another album standout is the brutally honest “Old Men Young Women.” For starters, this song has one of the best opening lyrics. “You can have him; I hope you have fun. I guess wife number three could be the one.” Lori McKenna, presumably singing from the perspective of wife number one, speaks to the young third wife, shining a light on the dark corners of the marriage. She’s the trophy and link to a past he’ll never experience again, and he has the material resources to provide for her. But at the end of the day, neither one is fulfilled emotionally and it’s only a matter of time before the relationship meets its inevitable end.

“All These Things” is an upbeat love song, perhaps the most upbeat song of the album. McKenna lists off several different things and situations that illustrate the strength to their devotion to one another. “Always Want You” is a song about trying to get over a break up. Just like water runs through the creek bed or church bells ring on Sunday, McKenna believes she’ll always want the one she can’t have. “If Whiskey Were a Woman” is another heartbreaking song about a marriage on the rocks. Again, Lori McKenna is singing from the perspective of a woman who has let her marriage fall apart. She knows she can’t love and comfort her husband like she should, and compares herself to the whiskey he clings to and drinks, and how she would be if she were the whiskey.

In a word, The Bird & The Rifle is excellent. Lori McKenna writes and sings great stories with a stunning conviction and honesty. These truly are McKenna’s stories to tell, and she sells you on that truth. Even with the slower and mid-tempo production, Dave Cobb helps keep the focus of the album on McKenna’s voice and words, which is where the strength of the album lies. Whether it’s a single word choice in the title track or the biting delivery in “Old Men Young Women”, Lori McKenna let’s focal point of the album shine. The Bird & The Rifle is a must listen and a must buy album. Lori McKenna delivers a stunning country, folk album.

Grade: 10/10

 

 

Album Review – The Honeycutters’ ‘On The Ropes’

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One of my favorite Americana discoveries over the past year has without a doubt been The Honeycutters. This five-piece band from North Carolina brings a dedicated country sound to their music, with lead singer Amanda Platt also serving as the chief songwriter. Last year’s album, Me Oh Mywas a solid country album with 14 songs that never peaked beyond a mid-tempo range in the production. As good a songwriter as Platt is, the songs seemed to sit in a safe, traditional country region with several songs about cheating, love, or lost souls hooking up for one night. But with the band’s fourth album the monotony is gone. On The Ropes shows more versatility from The Honeycutters with a bit of rock and pop influence in the production, while still keeping the songs firmly planted in country music. The songs and lyrics are richer, exploring more topics, and Platt’s vocals sound as good as ever.

The album begins with the title track, where the phrase “on the ropes” is used in the boxing sense, also coming full circle with the album cover. The boxing metaphor for the song is used to describe a relationship falling apart, and how she’ll continue to fight her fight and not give in. “On the Ropes” is more upbeat, setting the tone for the album. “Blue Besides” deals with the realities of growing up and moving on from a once comfortable life. Starting a new chapter isn’t easy, and takes its toll on you, and Platt highlights the struggles of the process. The production kicks up halfway through the song, making this an easy to listen song.

“Golden Child” has a bit more rock flair to it with an electric guitar leading the production. This is also one of several songs where the organ chimes into mix. “Golden Child” continues on with the more upbeat tone of the beginning of the album. “The Handbook” seems to combine some pop influences into the mix, while also having the most traditional sounding country music of the entire album. The steel guitar owns the production, but with the electric keyboards and pop nuances in the song’s delivery. It’s a unique style for the song, one I enjoy listening to.

On The Ropes slows down with “The Only Eyes.” This is a tried and true country love song where Platt sings of how her past failed relationships have left her heart heavy and eyes blue. But even with her past experiences, she knows that she’s in love and that these are the only eyes she could have to be able to see this love. It’s one of the better written songs on the album. The Honeycutters explore a nice mix of rock and country in “Back Row.” With the electric guitar, organ, and harmonica mixed into the production, “Back Row” has a heavier tone, fitting with the song’s content. Platt sings of a man who’s down on his luck, in need of prayers and support, who may be too prideful to admit he needs help. The extended solo over the last minute of the song is excellent, giving the backing band members a chance to shine on the album.

Another great example of Platt’s songwriting is “Useless Memories.” It’s another slower song, but the stripped back production allows the story to sink in. “Useless Memories” touches returning to your old home, a house now abandoned, dusty, and run-down. The subject is clearly running away from real life, and using the distractions of memories from his or her younger years to avoid whatever he or she is running from. “Piece of Heaven” deals with lost love. Platt sings in the first person about how she tried to keep her lover at a arm’s length, only to be surprised when he had enough and left her all alone. And now that she’s had what she calls a piece of heaven, she’s searching to find it again.

The Honeycutters break out their honky-tonk side with “Let’s Get Drunk.” The rowdier guitar and keyboards fill the production as Platt sings about a woman who’s ready to be rowdy and reckless for the night. The song isn’t really anything special, but it’s a fun listen nonetheless. “500 Pieces” explores the broken hearts of those who’ve lost love along the way. The steel guitar rings as Platt sings about trying to alleviate the pain from the brokenness. The Honeycutters strip the production down all the way to a single electric guitar on “Ache.” This breakup song deals with a prideful woman who doesn’t want to admit that how hurt she is to see a man walk out of her life. For a song dealing with vulnerability like this, I love the decision to use one heavy guitar to compliment the lyrics. It’s easy to overlook this song playing the album in the background, but it’s one to pay attention to.

The band takes a stab at covering Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and do a justifiable job in my opinion. There’s many different covers of the song out there, but The Honeycutters truly make it their own with the steel guitars and production fitting nicely into the band’s musical niche, with a bluegrass like style to the song. On The Ropes comes to a close with “Barmaid’s Blues.” Set in an old western town with horses, cowboys, and saloons, Platt sings about the local barmaid who copes with the fact that there are no eligible bachelors available for her. The song starts out slow as the stage is set, but the production picks up after about two minutes, and carries the song and the story that keep you entertained until the end.

Unlike their previous album, I think On the Ropes shows The Honeycutters stretching themselves into new territories with the music and lyrics. It’s a welcome evolution in their music, as the album flows nicely between songs without sounding repetitive. The best thing about their additional styles and influences is that the band keeps it decidedly country throughout every song. The Honeycutters are a band worth listening to, and they keep getting better.

Grade: 9/10

Billboard Introduces Americana Music Chart

Jason Isbell Something More Than Free

Last week’s Hodgepodge is starting to look more fortuitous, isn’t it? I swear I didn’t know when I wrote it! In all seriousness this is news that further proves my point that this Americana movement is something that’s going to continue to grow. According to USA Today, Billboard announced last Thursday in an email with record executives that the current Folk Albums chart would be re-branded as the Americana and Folk Albums chart. The change will take effect on June 4. It’s yet another step forward to wide-spread recognition by not just the music industry, but fans everywhere. By being officially recognized by Billboard, this is yet another feather in the cap for Americana.

It was a long overdue move by Billboard, especially with the commercial rise of Americana artists and the fact that another major institution like the Grammys already recognize Americana with their awards. Jason Isbell topped the Country Albums chart last year and there was a minor controversy over this because he’s widely regarded as an Americana act and he squeaked by country legend Alan Jackson, who’s representatives didn’t want to concede #1. Then of course you have the Green River Ordinance controversy from a few months back when Billboard refused to recognize their new album on the country chart. USA Today reached out to Green River Ordinance’s manager Larry Murray and asked him his thoughts on the announcement. He applauded the move and embraces the Americana label, but would still like to be recognized by the country chart too.

“When you say ‘Americana’ it gives different weight to an artist’s stature,” Murray said. “It could also be a really competitive chart in the next few months to a year, as you see artists that are more and more prevalent now coming forward.”

Executive Director of the Americana Association Jed Hilly had nothing but praise for Billboard’s introduction of an Americana chart too:

“I think it’s a game-changer and that’s why it is a home run, because this chart will represent the importance and sales potential of this genre, and we’ve never had that before,” Hilly said. “I think it will be one of the most significant charts artists will look at, because they’ll want to be associated with other artists, because these artists are writing songs to tell stories the best way they can from an artistic standpoint primarily.”

I don’t have much else to add except to echo the sentiments from both Hilly and Murray. There will undoubtedly be some acts that still end up on both the country and Americana charts like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. But for acts that are solely Americana this is a big move for them as they will reach more audiences and be further accepted. Some may not like that folk is getting folded in with Americana, but to me it makes total sense because many artists who identify as one identify as the other. Besides I don’t hear very much chatter on what’s happening on the folk chart. But there will undoubtedly be chatter around it now with its re-branding.

 


Country Perspective will be giving great consideration into doing a weekly series with the newly re-branded chart, especially if we see interest in expressed such a thing.

Album Review – Elephant Revival’s ‘Petals’

“When words fail…music speaks.”

That phrase is what the Elephant Revival uses to help describe their music. It’s a phrase that works, because the songwriting found on their albums is deep, tapping into tough emotions and describing the human experience through devoted metaphors. The quintet is made up of Bonnie Paine (washboard, djembe, musical saw, stompbox); Bridget Law (fiddle, octave fiddle); Charlie Rose (banjo, pedal steel, guitar, horns, cello, double bass); Dango Rose (double bass, mandolin, banjo); and Daniel Rodriguez (guitar, banjo, double bass). With more than four albums under their belt, the band has found their groove in lyrics and melodies, and with a devoted listen, you can hear the music speak on the band’s newest album, Petals.

The album begins with the love song “Hello You Who.” Bonnie leads the vocals here, singing greetings to the one who holds her close and dances with her. The song establish’s the band’s folk style well, with a good mix of acoustic guitar, fiddle, and upright bass behind the vocals. “Peace Tonight” has a great, catchy melody with a mix of guitars, fiddle, and pedal steel along with more vocal harmonies from the band. The lyrics tell the story of a woman who seems to be praying for the people around her. She wishes them, no matter who they are or what they’re dealing with, to have peace as the day ends and night falls.

The title track has more electric guitar and percussion in a production that bounces between tempo and styles throughout. It creates a bit of a jarring listen, but shows some versatility in the group as musicians, who are committed to creating a different sonic atmosphere within each song. “On and On” is one of the more vague songs on the album, but it works as the listener is able to draw their own interpretation from the lyrics. I interpret the song about people committing themselves to a lie, and carrying that lie with them in public while it secretly eats at them.

The steel guitar and fiddle are brilliantly showcased on “Raindrops.” A quiet, spacial production that builds to a great fiddle solo, the melody moves with the lyrics. The song encourages one to take a step back and relax amid the chaos of a storm in life. Elephant Revival frequently use water as symbol throughout the songs, which goes along with the album art depicts a woman rowing a boat. Water can symbolize several things: It could be calming/refreshing, a symbol for new life or the beginning of a new cycle, or the flow of emotions and representation that things change. And in the cases where water shows up on the album, it symbolizes calming or a changing journey.

Elephant Revival also use the symbol of changing seasons as a metaphor for breakups in “Season Song.” Through the feeling of living things dying in the fall and the cold of winter, into the spring, the season of rebirth, the lyrics clearly deal with overcoming the end of a relationship. With a faint Celtic influence in their writing and production, the Elephant Revival tap into that with “Furthest Shore.” A journey through water as the story tells of a boy who is separated from his mother. The upright bass and fiddle are present in the song as well as some Irish accents in the vocals.

Water pops up again with “Sea Monster.” It’s more of country song with the banjo and fiddle in the mix. Lyrically, the song depicts a search for something, and the ups and downs of success, with the temptations of the Siren’s song luring the searcher away from the goal. With many songs dealing with symbolic metaphors, “When I Fall” sounds a bit out place. The song is rather basic, lyrically, skirting around spiritual themes without fleshing out any sort symbolism or direct story. I suppose it’s another song that could read like a prayer, but even so, it’s not as fleshed out as “Peace Tonight.”

The final use of water on Petals comes in “Home in Your Heart.” Almost like a river baptism, the song deals with the rebirth and new beginnings in life. The album ends on a strong note in the melodies. The use of strings are well done, and even though the songs are slower, they compliment the lyrics. And in the final song, “Close as Can Be,” the lyrics tell the story of a woman trying to move on from the death of a loved one. Bonnie Paine’s vocals are spot on as she sings about how the memories will keep them as close as can be.

Petals is a well written album, exploring common life situations with new symbolism and different approaches. Sonically, though, the band take an approach of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” The song’s melodies stay in the Elephant Revival comfort zone as heard on the band’s previous albums. With that said, Petals is a good folk/Americana album worth listening exploring.

Grade: 7/10