REVIEW: Shovels & Rope craft a sublime new LP, Swimmin' Time 

All Aboard

Are Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent a couple of fish assassins?

Leslie Ryan McKellar

Are Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent a couple of fish assassins?

This has been one long summer waiting on Swimmin' Time, the third release from Charleston's favorite sloppy-tonkin' husband-and-wife pair, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent. A teaser video was posted on Shovels & Rope's YouTube channel way back in April, taunting fans with a mere 30-odd seconds from the title track. Then in June, the band introduced the single "The Devil is All Around," a tasty treat that went a ways in satiating the ShoRo public until the album's release on August 26. And now? It's finally time for Swimmin' Time. And boy was it worth the wait.

Listen Now: NPR currently has "Swimmin' Time" available to stream in its entirety as this week's "First Listen"

The liner notes alone are fascinating. Vintage photographs of flooded scenes from landmarks like the Ashley and Edisto rivers accompany the lyrics. Judging from the album's title, images, and much of the language used in the songs, it's clear that the Johns Island couple, and indeed Swimmin' Time, is massively inspired by the waters seeping through the Lowcountry. We can't wait to dip our toes right on in.

"Swimmin' Time" liner notes - SAM SPENCE
  • Sam Spence
  • "Swimmin' Time" liner notes

It's obvious you're in for a spiritual experience when the record kicks off with the tones of an organ before Hearst and Trent launch into "The Devil is All Around," a deceivingly uplifting song about getting your life back on track despite your former sins. The twosome's incomparably powerful harmonies excite and calm the soul when they sing "I'm going down a long road/ Maybe it's the wrong road/ But either way I gotta find my way back home again." Another survival anthem "After the Storm" is a slow and stunning track, glued together with hopeful words and those two voices that know one another like only lovers can.

With a rattlesnake hum and talk of fire and floods, the ominous title track is a Revelations-like warning ("I can see it coming/ In the distance is the gloom of the end of days") and the most haunting of the water-themed songs. Another tragic aquatic tale is told on "Thresher," where a 1963 submarine sinks while an "unending black sea held everyone's gaze in a quiet humility." "Stono River Blues" is another swamp-filled song and a history lesson about the 1739 Stono slave rebellion that'll make locals want to re-enroll in school. "The mayor borrowed all of the money he need/ To put in a bridge with deliberate speed/ They cut down the oaks with a tip of his hat/ And God will never forgive him for that."

Cary Ann and Michael play a show at Charleston Music Hall in January 2014 - JOHN A. ZARA FILE PHOTO
  • John A. Zara file photo
  • Cary Ann and Michael play a show at Charleston Music Hall in January 2014

Dark undertones continue to weave in and out of the record, again notably with "Ohio," a good and grim New Orleans-style tune that's all brass and bullets. And the silly side of Shovels & Rope is everywhere, too, like in "Fish Assassin'," a song that genuinely needs no further introduction except to say it's a stomping, fiery railroad-style hymn about fussin', fishin', and fryin'. "Coping Mechanism" is a sassy, 1950s ditty that saunters, sways, and tells the clean truths about dirty drugs.

Another standout track is "Mary Ann and One-Eyed Dan," the most joyful, terribly sweet song we've heard in a long time and a wedding tune if there ever was one. This story about an ex-soldier/current writer and his circus waitress soul mate brought a few — OK, a ton — of tears to our faces, even after a dozen listens. Then there's "Save the World," a song that's not so much an Earth Day ode, but rather a poignant reminder that simply carrying out small, kind gestures is the sort of action that'll save mankind.

While influences from Jack White to Tom Waits are evident throughout the record, Swimmin' Time is uniquely Hearst and Trent through and through. Full of raw energy, homegrown spirit, and rock 'n' roll magic, this whole album sublimely balances the bright with the bleak. Every note leaves us baffled as to how these two miraculously found each other, but we're awfully glad they did.

Monster Music and Movies is having a Swimmin' Time listening party Aug. 25 at 6 p.m. Free pizza will be on hand and probably some free beer, plus the store will give away a few records that day. The first five people to purchase the new album that morning when the doors open at 10 a.m. will get a free Shovels & Rope seven-inch Johnnny 99 record the twosome recorded at Jack White's Third Man Studios last year. There will also be a drawing that evening for five additional free copies of the 45, which features ShoRo covers of Bruce Springsteen's "Johnny 99" and Tom Waits' "Bad as Me."


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