I was never a huge fan of The White Stripes, but my wife loves them and she has impeccable taste in music, so thanks to my better-half over time I’ve come to consider myself at the very least a fan. It goes without saying that Jack White was the better-half of the White Stripes partnership. White put the “art” back in “artifice”, and used his solid song-writing and music chops to elevate the two-piece band arrangement to something well above simply being a gimmick. Meg White and Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney may be less than Garfunkel-like than their respective pairings, but they each helped to anchor the vision of exceptionally gifted musicians.
Recently while getting ready for bed the voice of David Letterman demanded my attention as he introduced a band I had previously never heard of named Shovels & Rope. When the camera cut to a guitar wielding woman standing next to a one-man percussion section I immediately thought of the sometimes lopsided creative dynamic of other popular two-pieces. It only took a few bars to see that this duo from South Carolina was a little different. The voice of singer/guitarist Cary Ann Hearst was disarmingly sweet with piercing presence; I instantly turned to my wife and said “She sounds like a young Dolly Parton.” The percussive work of Michael Trent was captivating as he kept time with a kick-drum, a snare-drum with sticks, hit a tambourine and cymbal with a maraca, and sang backup while a harmonica hung patiently from his neck waiting for it’s time to shine. The song swung from a sunny country-ballad to a rambling country-rock stomper, and before long that harmonica shows up in time to deliver a Dylan-esque moment of bittersweet reflection.
Greeting the band after their performance an elated Letterman jokingly remarked about all of the work Trent was doing compared to Hearst simply having to “play(guitar) and sing.” I learned later that Trent and Hearst, who are married, are each a highly respected sing-songwriter in their own right and their 2012 album O’ Be Joyful is their second offering under the moniker of Shovels & Rope. My gut feeling is that Mike Trent is a true southern-gentleman that considers his wife Hearst to be his better-half. As a fan I look at Shovels & Rope and see a creative partnership between two equals that will hopefully be making amazing music together for a long time.
A few of my favorite tracks from O’ Be Joyful by Shovels & Rope:
“Birmingham” – With the right exposure this song from the Letterman performance could have made Shovels & Rope a 2012 breakout band like their label-mates the Lumineers. What this song lacks in a nonsensical sing-along hook it makes up for with a chorus that is slightly cryptic, poetic, and just plain spellbinding. For those with a religious devotion to music, the chorus with its opening line, “Rock of ages, cleave for me…”, could serve as a prayer or a blessing.
“O’ Be Joyful” – A boozy, ramshackle number that gives a taste of what their performances were like during the days when they were working the Charleston bar scene. Trent and Hearst wail, harmonize and growl together throughout this gut punch of a song.
“Hail Hail” – This song seems like it’s a loose homage to the Chuck Berry classic “Hail Hail Rock & Roll,” but without the youthful innocence of the original. With lyrics like “Hail hail rock n roll, I loved you till you slit my throat and swallowed me whole,” you can’t tell if it’s a love-letter or a cautionary tale. All that matters is that it has a refreshing country-punk vibe that fittingly caps off the albums four song opening salvo.
“Cavalier” – With references to David Bowie and The Talking Heads, “Cavalier” brings to light the side of its writers that forged their musical bond partly by playing and recording Ramones covers together. The song sounds like something you might find on a Yo La Tengo or New Pornographers album. It’s a sweeping piece of backbeat driven pop with clever and biting lyrics that almost make it sound like a diss-track.
O’ Be Joyful is available on vinyl at Insound.