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 – Robert Ellis’ Self-Titled Album is Eclectically Great

Robert Ellis Album

One of the clear themes I’ve seen emerge in country and Americana that I feel is understated is just how many of these artists are straying away from their original and/or traditional country sound. We’ve seen it most notably with Sturgill Simpson and his new album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. We’ve also seen it other new albums and songs from the likes of Brandy Clark, Aubrie Sellers and Chris King. It’s really quite clear to me that this isn’t a coincidence, but rather artists are getting tired of being painted into a box creatively and want to stretch out creatively. And I think Robert Ellis exemplifies this more than anyone else has in country and Americana this year. He burst onto a lot of radars with the decidedly country album Photographs in 2011 and then started to drift away from it with the follow-up album The Lights from The Chemical Plant in 2014. Now he’s back with his new album, a self-titled effort that continues where Chemical Plant left off. While the country sound is still there at times, it’s clear that Ellis wanted to go even further with experimenting with different genre influences. And for the most part, it really pays off in spades.

Some funky and groovy keys play in “Perfect Strangers.” Ellis got the idea for the song just walking around New York City and the rest they say is history. He came up with this song, which is about a man meeting and falling in love with a stranger on the street. They end up getting married, only for five years to feel like strangers again and it’s clear their marriage is falling apart. They get divorced and just like that the love is gone so it seems. Like a compelling opening chapter of a book, this song makes you want to hear the rest of the story because it’s only the beginning. On “How I Love You” Ellis sings from the point of view of the man, who is now trying to pick up the pieces after his marriage is done. He’s also coping with the lingering love he still has for his ex-wife and admits his own faults certainly contributed to it failing. Clearly he still wants her and wants another chance.

This leads to “California,” where we get an idea of where the woman’s head is at in the fallout of the marriage. Taking on an awesome, 80s inspired folk pop sound, the song starts out about how she reflects on how she was willing to go anywhere with him so she could be with him. Now that she’s alone, she realizes she can now go where she wants and contemplates starting over in California. It’s a song about new beginnings and reflecting on what’s led to it. The soaring production really ties this song together and makes for one of the best on the album.

“Amanda Jane” sees the man realizing he couldn’t change his ex-wife. A person is who they are and that who they are will only grow stronger with time and makes it even harder for them to change. It’s a sad song, but it’s also forthrightly honest and a realization needed for the man to move on with his life. The strings and steel guitar really give the song a perfect feel, while also giving it a distinctly country sound. That country sound carries over into “Drivin’,” where we see the man is now going a little crazy being alone. He’s driving around all over the place, doing chores over and over around the house and wondering around the grocery store. He realizes he’s not living his life, but just surviving.

Ellis seems to take a break from the story so far and delves into artist commentary on “The High Road.” He sings about how he’s getting tired of taking the high road and watching his enemies and “flash in the pans” passing him by while he continues to get older and feels like just another face out there. But he still goes out every night and acting like it’s the opposite. These aren’t necessarily Ellis’ thoughts and more of the thoughts of the man in the story, but it will provoke your thoughts and make you think about the life of independent artists. The string-based “Elephant” sees the exes confronting each other about the plans they had made together. The man points out how they got a house and saved a spot for the baby they never had together. He also says they needed to be more honest with each other when they decided to cheat on each other. The song goes on further where Ellis once again lays out some thoughts on music and genre lines when he sings: “Why can’t the rules be less defined?/How can you call it art when you’re sticking to a dotted line?” The song packs a punch and says a lot in just over four minutes.

“You’re Not The One” takes on a bigger, orchestra driven sound. The man is with someone else and yet he can’t shake the thoughts of his wife. It’s driving him nuts, as all he can see is her face. He tells himself she’s not the one he should want and yet his heart is telling him the exact opposite, yet he refuses to accept it. This is followed by the all-instrumental “Screw.” Kelly Doyle, a Houston jazz artist and good friend of Ellis, wrote it. As for the purpose it serves on this album, I’m not really sure. It may not serve a purpose and may just act as a buffer. I’ll leave it up to you the listeners to decide.

Ellis goes for a throwback pop sound on “Couples Skate” while also adding a slight electronic feel too. It makes for an interesting sound to compliment the song, which is about the man asking a new woman to go with him to the couples skate and be his partner for the night. It’s a good experience and the man doesn’t really want to stop dancing in her arms out on the floor. This leads to “It’s Not Ok,” where they both face reality after the night they shared. He’s still married and hasn’t divorced his wife yet, but he’s clearly in love with this new woman. At the same time thoughts of his wife still linger too. He openly admits the situation is not right and doesn’t know what to do. And that’s where the story ends. We don’t get the perfect, fairytale ending because life isn’t like the movies and not everything works out the way it should. The song leaves us with a long, rocking guitar frenzy.

Robert Ellis’ new self-titled album does an excellent job of crafting stories of love, heartbreak, redemption and life. It also does a great job of incorporating so many different genres together to create some really unique sounds and moments on the album, while elevating the lyrics in the process. This isn’t necessarily a country record and feels more like an Americana record (although the Americana snobs might dismiss it because it isn’t all written by him, which he perfectly responds to in an interview). Country purists and fans of Ellis’ original work might be quick to dismiss this record because it goes so many different places sonically. But music fans will find a lot to love about this album and sink their teeth into because there’s plenty to digest. I enjoyed the journey both the lyrics and instrumentation took me on and it’s an album that I think gets better with more listens. Call it what you want. I’ll call it great.

Grade: 9/10

 

Album Review – Corb Lund’s ‘Things That Can’t Be Undone’

Corb Lund Things That Can't Be Undone

So far Canadian country artists have been delivering great record after great record in 2015. At least the ones I’ve heard and reviewed right here on the blog. Of course they have their fair share of terrible mainstream artists and many Canadian country radio stations will play some of the bad music that comes right out of here in the States. The best they have to offer though easily rank right up there with some of the best here in America and amongst them are Lindi Ortega, Whitney Rose and Dean Brody. They have all set the bar high for Canadian country this year. So in the last few weeks I was skeptical of Corb Lund being able to live up to these lofty heights. Lund has definitely emerged lately as one of the more notable country artists from up north and his new album via New West Records, Things That Can’t Be Undone, has been highly anticipated by many. Adding more hype was the news that the producer of the album would be Dave Cobb, who has been a part of some of the most critically acclaimed country projects in recent years. So I dug into this record expecting the typical sound from Lund and instead he delivers something completely different from his past albums. And you know what? It’s really good.

Things That Can’t Be Undone opens with “Weight of the Gun.” One thing you’ll notice right away with this song is the distinct change in sound for Lund, as it has a decidedly Motown influence. This isn’t a bad thing for Lund, but it might be jarring to some longtime Lund fans. The song itself is about a man’s guilt after shooting a man dead and the consequences of it. This is a song you’ll either love or hate. Put me down for the former. “Run This Town” is your classic heartbreak song where the protagonist is left wondering what could have been if the relationship had lasted. The country meets rockabilly tune “Alt Berliner Blues” sounds more like your traditional sound from Lund. There’s plenty of steel guitar and it makes for quite a catchy tune.

The slower paced “Alice Eyes” is about a man being captivated by his love’s eyes. It’s her defining feature and when he looks into him he knows he belongs with her. This song is great proof that Lund has a knack for love songs. “Sadr City” sees Lund singing about living the military life and how he never wants to go back to the scary places he has been when he was serving. Lund takes a different approach from your usual song about the military in country music, in that he sings about the fears and tragedies of serving your country. It’s a real and honest song that makes you realize the sacrifice the brave men and women who serve your country make every single day.

Lund shows off his storytelling chops with “Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues.” Lund sings about how he hasn’t sold as many records lately and the crowds at his shows have been down a little bit, so he has to go back to working in the factory. When he goes back to work at the factory, his foreman and co-workers throw it in his face and remind him of how he quit years ago and vowed to never be back there. The most humorous line is when they tell him to go paint the back fence and that since he’s an artist, that he should “be kind of sensitive about it.” By the end of the song, Lund wakes up and realizes it was all a nightmare. It makes him feel more grateful to be doing what he loves and that maybe he shouldn’t complain so much at times. This is definitely one of my favorite songs on the record.

Lund calls back to his roots with “S Lazy H.” Lund himself grew up on the ranches and this song shows how proud he was of this upbringing. But the story of the song has an unfortunate ending, as the man is forced to sell 20 sections of the ranches to make ends meet. Eventually the bank consumes the rest and the man has lost something dear to him. Once again Lund brilliantly captures the emotions of the song and the instrumentation sets the tone perfectly. The rocking “Goodbye Colorado” is your classic country leaving song. The twangy and loud guitars throughout the song are enough to make the most jaded country fan smile. Lund wrote this song with Reckless Kelly’s vocalist Willy Braun.

“Talk Too Much” is just a flat-out fun song to listen to and move your feet along with. There’s no better way to describe it. The album closes out with “Sunbeam,” a love ballad about a man who sings of his Sunbeam, the woman he loves and who he hasn’t seen in many years. He years and also vows to see her again. This bluesy country love song is a solid song to cap out a very good album.

Corb Lund’s Things That Can’t Be Undone is an album that is rooted in country and takes influences from Motown, soul, blues and pop to create something completely unlike any other album he has released. For some this is a step in the wrong direction. To me personally, I found this record to be refreshing, unique and exciting. Last year I reviewed and got my first taste of Lund’s music with his album Counterfeit Blues. And I never let on in that review how bored I was at times listening to it. But I can wholeheartedly say I enjoyed all of Things That Can’t Be Undone. With each listen it gets better and I found myself getting into it more than I expected. I certainly applaud Lund for trying something new and bold and brining on producer extraordinaire Dave Cobb, whom I can tell really helped this album stand out. Canadian country has delivered in spades this year and Lund is yet another artist from the Great White North to deliver a great record.

Grade: 9/10

 

Album Review – The Deslondes Impress With Their New Self-Titled Album

The Deslondes
Photo Credit: Sarrah Danziger

The Deslondes just released their self-titled debut album with New West Records. But it would be unfair to call them a new band. They’ve been making music for years, but this is just the first time they’ve released an album under the band name The Deslondes. They’re New Orleans-based and made up of the following members: Sam Doores (vocals/guitar), Riley Downing (vocals/guitar), Dan Cutler (vocals/stand-up bass), Cameron Snyder (vocals/percussion) and John James Tourville (pedal steel/fiddle). Their music borrows from a variety of influences. This includes country, southern rock, blues, jazz and 50s & 60s style R&B that dominated the New Orleans music scene. You can hear just as much Jimmie Rodgers, as Fats Domino in their music. This fusion of genres truly makes for an intriguing sound throughout their debut self-titled album.

The first track is “Fought The Blues And Won,” right away introducing listeners to their “old-school” sound that is throughout this album. There’s just as much blues present as there is country. Something that the listeners might miss on this song I would like to point out is the organ in the background, which really stood out to me when listening. The mid-tempo “Those Were The Days” reflects back on a relationship that could’ve happened. The banjo and tambourine drive the sound of the song, which is a simplistically great approach. The sound of a lonesome harmonica plays in “Heavenly Home,” which perfectly sets the tone for this bluesy song. It’s about a loner who was born to be on the run, but he comes across a girl whose heart he can finally call home. The harmonica playing in this song is top-notch.

The fast-paced “Less Honkin’ More Tonkin’” is a fun song you can easily find yourself tapping your feet along with. There’s plenty of steel guitar and fiddle to make any country fan smile. One of my favorites on the album is “Low Down Soul.” It’s about a man down on luck, hope and heartbroken. He’s a lost soul wondering what’s next for him. The vocals and instrumentation are flawless in this song and create the perfect mood for a heartbreak song. The lyrics are decidedly dark and somber. The Deslondes hit a home run with this one. They speed it back up though on “The Real Deal” and once again show the variety in their skilled repertoire. It’s another heartbreak song, but the man in this song is more hopeful about his future love prospects. He’s had horrible luck with love, but he’s determined to find the real deal soon. The harmonies in this song are brilliant and really hook the listener in.

“Still Someone” is drenched in steel guitar. While the instrumentation impresses me, I wanted more from the lyrics. I really wasn’t sure what The Deslondes were going for on this song and I wish the lyrics had been clearer about it. I’m impressed by the dynamic instrumentation again in “Time To Believe In.” It’s a somber-toned song where a man comes to terms with mortality. Once again a healthy dose of harmonica gives a song on this album the shot of blues it needs to really stand out. “Louise” features more great harmonies from The Deslondes. It’s about a guy loving a girl named Louise with all of his heart. But he has to leave her because he’s a rambling man whose life belongs to the open road. It’s a nice take on the classic rambling man love song.

“Simple And True” is another solid heartbreak song on the album. The Deslondes keep with the heartbreak theme on “Same Blood As Mine.” What makes this stand out over “Simple And True” is the fantastic harmonies once again from the band. This is really one of their strongest attributes and something they can never do enough of in my mind. And of course the instrumentation is once again great. I think that can go without saying with this group. The final song to close the album out is “Out On The Rise.” It’s the longest song on the album and arguably the best too. The piano and pedal steel guitar really help create a smoky feeling around this desperado type song. The instrumentation is so good that it kind of sucks you in. It’s a mark of the true talent The Deslondes possess.  

The old-school approach and melting pot of genres on this album makes for a fun listen. The Deslondes hold my attention from start to finish with ease. The instrumentation and the harmonies are the absolute biggest strengths I take away after hearing The Deslondes on this album. I don’t think they could improve one bit in this area, as they nail these two aspects. The one area though I wanted more in was the songwriting department. I think it could be deeper and have more variety. While The Deslondes are great at making heartbreak songs, it felt like they touched on this theme a little too much and wanted to hear them tackle some other themes. If they step up in this area on their next album, the sky is the absolute limit for them. They’re a band to keep an eye on and I highly recommend checking out this debut album from them. This is an album I think many country fans can pick up and easily enjoy.

Grade: 8.5/10