Charleston husband and wife duo Shovels & Rope saw a sudden increase in popularity last year as word spread of their intense live show. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent’s home-brewed feel and palpable chemistry drew in the crowds, who eventually worked their way back to the couple’s delightful 2012 LP, O’ Be Joyful. The follow-up, Swimmin’ Time, presents an opportunity to sink the hook into fans won over during the last year. While the album will likely reel in a solid catch, some fishies will ultimately spit out the bait.
Opener “The Devil Is All Around” and penultimate track “Save the World” signal that all the elements of Shovels & Rope are still here: born-for-each-other voices, Southern charm, and dexterous (yet ramshackle) multi-instrumentalism. But the most interesting successes come when they turn down darker corners. “Bridge on Fire” tells of a breakup with such clarity that it’s simultaneously heartbreaking and empowering. The title track’s “the end is nigh” forewarnings choke tighter with each turn of the gear in the background, which, together with the history lesson of “Stono River Blues”, encapsulates the album’s running theme of global warming anxiety.
While those numbers prove the duo can satisfyingly maintain new forms, too often the album repeats old tricks. For a murder ballad like O’ Be Joyful cut “Shank Hill St.”, you’ve got “Ohio”. A show of Southern pride like “Kemba’s Got the Cabbage Moth Blues”? Enjoy “Fish Assassin”. R-rated drama à la stalker tune “Tickin’ Bomb”? Here’s the statutory rape story “Evil”. These aren’t all weak songs — “Fish Assassin” is actually a stomping joy, and “Evil” only overstays its welcome by a minute — but it’s so easy for Americana to become redundant that when a band of Shovels & Rope’s unique chemistry starts rehashing itself so early, it’s kind of a letdown.
Most overused of all is the layering of Trent and Hearst’s vocals. Whereas numerous tracks on Joyful let Trent’s quaver shine, here he’s almost entirely relegated to the background. Hearst’s twangy yelp is more immediate, so it becomes hard to focus on Trent during duets. The joint vocals were earned on the previous LP by occasionally saddling back on the harmonies; that only happens here on “Coping Mechanism”, and it’s one of the stronger tracks for it.
Even with recycled tropes, Shovels & Rope produce some worthwhile additions to their live repertoire, but you can’t expect a fish to fall for the same lure every time. The darker tone on Swimmin’ Time shows they’re able to change things up, but they may be too afraid of losing their momentum to really be daring.
Essential Tracks: “Coping Mechanism”, “Fish Assassin”, and “The Devil Is All Around”