Review: Shovels & Rope Find New Musical Territory on 'By Blood'
There's a moment on Shovels & Rope's new album, By Blood, that is so indicative of the duo's approach to music that it jumps out. It comes during the first verse of the workhouse-style singalong “Hammer.” Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst share lead vocals with the easy harmony fans have come to love when someone, it's hard to tell who, appears to miss a line. You can almost hear the smile in the track as they redirect themselves onto the same page. It's the kind of flub (assuming it wasn't planned, and it doesn't sound at all like it was) that most bands would immediately boot for a second take. But, in the DIY work ethic world the duo has built over four albums, the “loose almost to the point, but never over the line of, sloppy” vocal turn is just another endearing moment in an album full of them.
Shovels & Rope roar out of the gate on By Blood with the punk-tinged and fuzz toned “I'm Comin' Out.” The lyrics are kept intentionally ambiguous. While it could be taken literally as a song about the birth of their second child, lines like “I'll show up to battle in my best suit, I've got the the taste of blood in my mouth, 'cause I'm comin' out” are a bit more revolutionary than is typical for such a happy event.
Less ambiguous but no less ambitious is the futuristic fantasy tale “C'mon Utah.” The musical accompaniment to Trent and Hearst's forthcoming picture book, it is set in a future where Donald Trump's border wall has been built and subsequently destroyed. The “Utah” of the song's title is a magical horse who appears to displaced migrant children and reunites them with their families. The whole thing is framed as a campfire tale told in the shanty towns formed by the lost to lift the spirits of the children within. It's a heck of a lot of story to pack into less than four minutes of song, but the band pulls it off with ease.
Another highlight song is “The Wire.” There's a slight new wave tinge to the track, another wrinkle to add to the duo's punk meets Americana meets garage rock toolbox. But it's the lyrics that truly shine here. Hearst begins the song by droning “I've been a disappointment from time to time, I'm prone to swing a mirrors. I interrupt slow talkers and I need everyone to like me” before the full force of the guitar comes in as she insists “but I won't fail you when I walk out on the wire.”
Adding yet another element, '50s style doo wop, to the song “Twisted Sisters” leads to a call and response vocal that will be a blast to let the audience take over live. Trent gets a great solo vocal turn on the bridge before Hearst joins him for the horn-filled sing-along chorus.
As much as the album begins with a bang, it ends on a simmer with the title track. A finger-picked acoustic number, it almost lulls the listener, giving them a gentle lullaby of love, family, and perseverance as a reward for coming along for the wild ride.
Surprises abound throughout the rest of the album as well. From the retooled murder ballad “Pretty Polly” to the garage banger “Mississippi Nuthin” to the in turns nostalgic and cynical “Good Old Days.” It's an album that rewards repeated listens with new wrinkles each time (I didn't notice the line flub mentioned at the open until about the 10th time through).
While Shovels & Rope doesn't have a CD release show scheduled, the album is coming just ahead of their own High Water Festival, which kicks off a busy spring that finds them sharing bills with Frank Turner, I'm With Her, and Tedeschi Trucks Band, as well as festivals like Bonnaroo and All the Best. You can find their full slate of tour dates here.