I want to promote Shovels & Rope which is a band made up of a husband & wife team. They have a sound that is just so raw & roots-based. My wife says that Carrie Ann Hearst’s voice is a combination of Macy Grey & Cyndi Lauper. I’m not sure I agree, but her vocals mix a rawness with range that help to provide harmonies with her husband, Michael Trent, that weave together in rich & intricate patterns. This weave is based on Trent’s even tone, while Hearst bends around his vocals like an out-of-control Billie Holiday. I’m going to talk about both of their albums, O Be Joyful & Swimming Time, which offer great songs & a tone of weary exuberance that I love. Yes, they aren’t treading new ground as far as roots music goes, whether the ragged guitar & eccentric percussion or the lyrics harkening back to depression era pain & suffering. Yet they have an ironic note in the lyrics, which often speak of facing disaster & staying strong & connected while doing so. Their lyrics are complex & have great images of struggle. For example the song “The Devil is All Around”, offers up a troubling image of submission “on your hands & on your knees with an apple in your mouth/You will know how far you’ll go to make your peace with God” that later finds them pushing back with “It’s too late to turn back now, gotta get the lead on out/ Gotta find some way to make it right on” before the shared refrain “And nobody knows it like you do babe/the lengths that we will go to”.
Take the song “Tickin’ Bomb” with a great shuffle beat & the lyrics “Well, all bottled up/A beggin’ dog with my tongue out/I’m in my shell/and only you can make me come out”. Again the lyrics offer up an artistic relationship mixed with love: “Well play my song/All night long/I’ll be a tickin’ bomb/Tickin’ all night long.”
"Birmingham" is another great song off O' Be Joyful. "Pulled her covered wagon off the BQE/Said this'll be the last you'll ever see of me/Well the cowboy laughed said I know it's not true/Cause there's nothing I could do to get loose from you" hints at the relationship built between two musicians with distinct voices coming together to beg "Rock of Ages, cleave for me". This mix of sacred, biblical imagery with the wayward road of traveling musicians has such potential that this band seeks to meet.
The most important aspect of Shovels & Rope though is the combination of playing the instruments themselves & finding new ways to perform their songs, something popular music has forgotten. See them here on David Letterman, playing "Coping Mechanism", a song from Swimming Time:
This group is seeking new ways to make Americana music swing & sway, & the artistic tension that must rub in a friction fraying their relationship at times. It certainly makes for great music. See them here playing acoustic at Pickathon with "Lay Low":
Again, they find a way to incorporate their collaboration as artists & musicians with their relationship, "Fumblin’ through all of the letters and notes/The ones that you wrote/Do they keep me afloat/Or just wrap around my throat like a noose on a rope?" It's a fresh sound.
I want to promote music like this: music that comes from people who spend their lives trying to master their art, master their music, master their instruments. Whether musicians work alone or collaborate, I want music that people can play whatever the venue & audience. I've dedicated this blog to promoting artists like Shovels & Rope. Give them a listen!