Charleston, South Carolina’s Shovels & Rope, a band comprised of husband and wife Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, play a timeless, restless, decidedly American brand of music. It’s music that may have crackled across the radio in 1967 or here in 2014. It’s music that’s meant for an open road or open water. It’s music that recalls divy honky tonks and swampy juke joints. It’s music that’s meant to uplift souls in their darkest hours and lead them to the light.
Trent and Hearst’s first release under the Shovels & Rope moniker, 2012’s O’ Be Joyful, featured exuberant stompers (“Keeper,” “O’ Be Joyful,” and “Cavalier”), mournful ballads (“Lay Low” and “Carnival”), and an excellent autobiographical road narrative in the tradition of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled up in Blue” (“Birmingham”). The album painted a picture of the formation of a bond—a loving, unbreakable bond—in the face of all the obstacles two people might come across out there on the American Road.
If Trent and Hearst rose to national prominence by charming their audience with road-worn tales of love on O’ Be Joyful, this year’s Swimmin’ Time represents a darker turn, musically and lyrically, for the husband-wife duo. Situating Trent and Hearst as their songs’ narrators, Swimmin’ Time fleshes out the couple’s narrative arc by recalling the obstacles they overcame to reach O’ Be Joyful’s smitten yarns. Sung from the sunny present, the songs on Shovels & Rope’s newest album sound notes of hope, mercy, and redemption in the face of the dark—at times, in that grand, Southern Gothic tradition, grotesque—lyrical themes.
On Swimmin’ Time, water—particularly the rising variety—serves as a metaphor for those bad, uncontrollable things that inevitably happen to folks. Indeed, if it is swimming time, Trent and Hearst have the life preserver—seen on the album’s cover—for their listeners. The life preserver, the path to salvation, is simple: accept that which is beyond your control and love the people around you despite their flaws.
Of course, not everyone will find salvation. On the title track, over their own low, foreboding, wordless incantations, Trent and Hearst sing, “The money in your eyes has left you blind/ You’ll be the one drownin’ when it’s swimmin’ time.” When Hearst wails “I can see it coming” (it being the water), the stage is set for the wicked to wash away while the righteous seek higher ground. The ease with which one can reach said higher ground, however, is debatable. On the album’s lead track, “The Devil is All Around,” Shovels & Rope ponder the lengths to which an individual will go to make peace with God. The struggle of making peace with God is rendered naked by the stark organ and voice arrangement at the outset of the track; however, when the drums kick in, the melody grows triumphant. Trent and Hearst are seemingly singing directly to each other when they croon, “And nobody knows it like you do, babe.” Meaning, they’re both at fault and they both understand the struggle. Together, the high road, the high ground is attainable. Together, the life preserver is in reach.
On Swimmin’ Time, Shovels & Rope don’t break any new musical ground. If a band that plays within the traditions of older genres of music isn’t your thing, Shovels & Rope isn’t for you. However, if you like folk songwriting, barroom honky-tonk, swampy rock & roll, and a soulfulness and a swing that calls to mind The Band’s Levon Helm, you’ll want to check out Swimmin’ Time. The messages might not be original, but they certainly bear repeating. And the playing and singing are damn fine.