If you had only heard the advance single "St. Anne's Parade" off Shovels & Rope's new album Little Seeds, out this Friday on New West Records, you might have been a little concerned that the husband-and-wife duo's recent procreative efforts had softened them. It's easy to imagine the softly strummed lullaby being composed in the tired pre-dawn twilight while gently rocking a baby to sleep, especially with its darkly sweet refrain: "And I'm up too damn early in the morning/ Watching the world around me come alive/ And I need more fingers to count the ones I love/ This life may be too good to survive."
And it's true that the duo composed and recorded the album at home while caring for a newborn, a reality that they've been quite upfront about in recent interviews. But in many other ways, this is still very much the classic Shovels & Rope formula that first coalesced on 2012's O Be Joyful — the wonderfully raunchy guitar riff that announces the beginning of "I Know," the other advance single and leadoff track here, proves that. Crackling with energy even before Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent start chanting the lyrics together, it's hard to deny how comforting the specific alchemy of their sound has become — big, elemental drums, down and dirty electric guitars, twangy, gorgeously rough-hewn gang vocals that find the sweet spot between Dolly Parton and Jack White, and an omnivorous songwriting appetite that ranges from Dylan and Townes to Joe Strummer and Iggy Pop.
Part of that consistency likely stems from the fact that Trent, in addition to co-writing, has served as engineer and producer for each of the duo's efforts, and his nuanced balance between gritty swagger and layered pop sensibilities defines Joyful and the other two LPs we've gotten since, 2014's Swimmin' Time and last year's covers-and-friends compilation Busted Jukebox Vol. 1. That's not necessarily a bad thing — part of the band's intrinsic appeal is the warm interior aspects of the sound, the idea of two people working together to make as much — or as little racket — as the song requires.
And really, all of that is on full display on Little Seeds. In fact, at a lean dozen songs and less ballad-heavy than Swimmin' Time, there's actually more energy and rumble here than their last collection of originals, a fine collection that nonetheless got a bit bogged down on a few epic slow-burners ("After the Storm," "Thresher"). That forward momentum actually allows the quieter moments, like "St. Anne's Parade" and "San Andreas Fault Line Blues," to land more effectively. But it's still the rave-ups that are the most memorable tunes here, like the feverish charge of "Botched Execution," a delirious story tune with a disorienting organ line, or "The Last Hawk," an anthemic track that marries a "Be My Baby" backbeat and melody to an arrangement that sounds like something a garage-rock version of the Band (the song is a tribute to multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson) would come up with.
Both Hearst and Trent are brilliant in third-person guises throughout, as usual, but it's noteworthy that some of their greatest songwriting successes, like the Americana Music Award 2013 Song of the Year "Birmingham," have a whiff of autobiography that plays into the mythos of a husband-and-wife duo. That's what makes something like "St Anne's Parade" so endearing, and that carries over to two tracks on the backend of the record, "BWYR" and "This Ride," both of which seem to speak directly to the Charleston community that has nurtured the group for so long. "BWYR" is a spooky, hypnotic track that seems more reminiscent of their first self-titled effort, back before Shovels & Rope was really a legit band. But its lyrical call for unity ("black lives, white lives, yellow lives, red/ Let's all come together and share the bread/ Let's all join hands and share the dread/ Black lives, white lives, yellow lives red") paired with bleak pessimism seems to capture the mix of sadness and hope that has defined a city torn apart by the shooting of Walter Scott and the massacre of the Emanuel Nine.
The closing "This Ride" is, if anything, more poignant, if less socially conscious than the former track. Written and sung in tribute to Eric Brantley, a local musician, bartender, and close friend of Trent and Hearst who was tragically murdered this past April, the song is framed by a recording of Brantley's mother telling the story of how her son was born in the backseat of a police car — it finds the duo singing with aching candor. "If I'm walking too fast, baby pick it on up/ It's just like Old Yeller and Lonesome Dove/ When you hate how it ends, but you can't get enough," the duo sings.
"This Ride" is the best tune here, and it's a fitting summation for a record that, like all the best of the duo's creations, is concerned with characters and stories, mortality and grace, and the enduring power of song.
It feels good to have another Shovels & Rope record in our lives.