Photo: Leslie Ryan McKellar

Shovels and Rope: Little Seeds

Mournful, soulful, raw, and alive, their latest is the strongest set yet from the duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent.
Shovels and Rope
Little Seeds
New West

Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent have seen some highs and lows since 2014’s Swimmin’ Time. The married bandmates had a daughter, have dealt with family illness and personal loss, and, in June 2015, experienced with fellow South Carolinians the shock and disbelief following the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that left nine people dead in a racially-motivated hate crime. Echoes of these events resonate throughout the 12 songs on Little Seeds, their strongest record yet.

It’s tempting to compare Shovels and Rope with the Kills or the White Stripes: boy/girl vocals with dirty blues leanings. Tempting, and too easy. Any listener who enjoys those previously named will find much to like in Shovels and Rope, but there’s a dirt-floor folk and country blues foundation beneath even Hearst and Trent’s noisiest forays. “I know exactly where you got that sound,” they sing over a buzzing guitar in the album opener, as if to teasingly stave off potential criticism, but then they kick into “Botched Execution” and never look back. The music that follows is all over the map with occasionally familiar shadows forming and fading amidst the dust they kick up from that dirt-floor foundation.

“Botched Execution” sounds like the Hives one moment and Die Antwoord the next, with a dozen other murky referents floating amidst its satisfying cacophony. They shift gears fast but don’t strip them on “St. Anne’s Parade” with its melancholy mandolin strum and a touching co-vocal performance. The driving, folk-rock “The Last Hawk” follows, an uplifting homage to the Band’s great keyboardist Garth Hudson. And so on the record continues, veering from joyously raucous (“Buffalo Nickel”, “Invisible Man”) to delicate but haunted (“Missionary Ridge”, “Mourning Song”), a thrill-ride the whole way. Until it comes to a damn-near complete stop.

Little Seeds builds momentum all the way up to its 11th cut, “BWYR”, a minimalist, daunting reflection on America’s growing racial and economic divide, only to crash us into a wall of reality. Inspired by the horror of the mass shooting that it was Charleston’s turn to experience in June 2015, the song haunts the listener with flat-line voices that echo as if bouncing off the walls of an empty hospital corridor. There are elements of hope in the song’s call for prayer and its invitation: “Let’s all come together and share the bread.” But such promise is erased quickly by the reality of living in a world where “The poor grow hungry while the fat get fed.” The singers rub our noses in the artificial reality we’ve created, chanting “Talkers talk but nothing gets said / And nothing gets done and the hate it spreads.” It’s a bold move, all the more effective in its disruptive power.

The album closes with two inter-connected songs that seem to answer the pain expressed in “BWYR” if not with hope, then at least with stubborn persistence and an appreciation that life, however brief or troubled, is a gift. “Eric’s Birthday” drops listeners into a conversation where we hear a mother tell the funny story of her son’s birth. In the press materials, Hearst explains that Eric was a dear friend, killed as the band was completing the album. The hand claps and loosely strummed guitar carry over into “This Ride”, a beautiful, tear-inducing song that Hearst and Trent can’t get through without their own voices breaking. “This ride,” they sing, “what a ride” and then unleash a string of descriptors, each piled upon the other to encapsulate the whole of an existence, strings building into a crescendo, a reflection of the bittersweet beauty of a life. Then we hear again the voice of a broken-hearted mother filled with steely resolve to keep on—not just living—but enjoying the life she has left. We live, the lesson is implied, by our choices.

Little Seeds is an album of growth in every way. Hearst and Trent have grown emotionally through the joys and sorrows of recent years. Playing all the instruments here, they demonstrate their continuing growth as musicians. And Trent’s production, too, shows incredible depth and agility. The sound of this record is raw and alive. It’s a hell of a ride.

RATING 8 / 10