Despite a name perhaps more fitting for a pair of gold-hearted outlaws in a 1960s revisionist Western, Shovels & Rope – Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst – are a Charleston, South Carolina husband-and-wife duo who rely on two guitars, a rattling junkyard drum kit and mid-20th century American music to spin tales about love, life on the road, heartbreak and murder. “Wait!”, you say, “Haven’t I heard this before?” While it is true that comparisons to a certain Detroit ex-couple with a fondness for colour-coordinated outfits and slashing guitar riffs are inevitable, they do not begin to do justice to the engrossing blend of country, blues, early rock & roll and chilling balladry that Trent and Hearst offer on O’ Be Joyful, their second album as a duo (both have released music under their own names).
Over the course of the album’s eleven songs, the pair’s vivid songwriting creates an indelible sense of place and brings to life a not-quite-imaginary South populated by a variety of colourful characters. On opener “Birmingham”, which doubles as Shovels & Rope’s origin story, we meet a “Rockmount cowboy” and a “Cumberland daughter” of the “Delta Mama and a Nickajack Man”, traveling across America with the “beat-up drums and two old guitars” prominently featured in the arrangement. The bluesy “Keeper” introduces Lu and her “good good man”, who have settled down and live a quiet life, ignoring the town’s comments. “Cavalier”, a playful, infectious nod to early rock ‘n’ roll propelled by a shuffling Sun Records beat and a twangy guitar, finds an unnamed girl “holdin’ tight to a David Bowie lookalike” at 4am. Throughout these songs, the duo’s crisp guitars and crackling snare are often augmented by banjos, violins and, on “Hail Hail” and “Tickin’ Bomb”, New Orleans horn arrangements seemingly cribbed from Allen Toussaint’s lost briefcase of The Band’s Rock of Ages charts.
This place also has a darker side, though, revealed in the slow, mournful “Lay Low” – which could double as a tender lullaby if it weren’t so full of desperation and sadness, its protagonist feeling “so detached completely”. And in “Shank Hill St.” – likely a reference to Northern Ireland’s Shankill Butchers, but the song’s setting is unclear – the pair explore the murder ballad tradition with gloomy, foreboding storytelling reminiscent of 16 Horsepower’s biblical Southern gothic, a creepy mellotron adding a “Ballad of a Thin Man”-like edge to the song’s already suffocating atmosphere. “This Means War” ends the album on a hopeful note despite finding Trent’s narrator dreaming of his wife’s death and addressing God (“You had no prose/you had no right/to take my dove/my little light…my beating heart/my precious wife…”) over a wordless choir of Cary Ann Hearsts: after he awakes with a new perspective on life, he advises the listener to “keep very close what’s given to you”.
Holding all of this together are the couple’s harmonies, an instinctive blend of Trent’s everyman vocals (not unlike a less-ragged-but-just-as-wounded version of Deer Tick’s John McCauley) and Hearst’s powerful, showstopping pipes. On the title song and “Kemba’s Got the Cabbage Moth Blues”, she’s a feisty, boisterous daughter of Loretta and Dolly, a Southern firebrand in full flight who ends the latter song by letting loose and exclaiming loudly, as if suddenly possessed by the spirit of Alice’s Flo, “Fish and grits!” And yet, she also knows well when to hold back to serve the song: on “Lay Low”, where she never overpowers Trent, perfectly complementing his soft lead with a tender, quivering harmony that bristles with emotion and pathos, an apt touchstone might be Gram and Emmylou; on “Carnival”, she gently soars over the song’s Brechtian cabaret like a tuneful Lana del Rey stripped of any artifice.
O Be Joyful is not a perfect album – it doesn’t quite yet capture the way that the duo explode on the live stage (I have seen them win over entire audiences opening for Hayes Carll, the Felice Brothers, Justin Townes Earle and Jonny Corndawg in the last year alone, and you can check out a freshly recorded Daytrotter session here), and one might wonder what the songs would sound like with a few more cymbals and drums on their kit – but it is a record full of captivating stories, clever arrangements and catchy songs that keep revealing new layers on each successive listen, and that more than enough to make Shovels & Rope a pair to watch very, very closely.