As far as musical duos that seem to exceed the sum of their already awesome individual parts, Shovels & Rope rank right up their with the best of them. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent were already making some pretty impressive music on their own as solo artists when they decided to try their hand at doing it together. They released their self-titled debut in 2008 and are now releasing their stellar follow-up, O' Be Joyful, on Dualtone Records. After spending the last few years criss-crossing the Unites States with a couple acoustic guitars, a harmonica or two and a ramshackle, home-made drum set, Cary Ann and Michael have compiled an eclectic set of 11 songs filled with tales of love, heart break, home fires and wanderlust through a variety of interesting characters. Instead of trying to capture these wildly raucous and surprisingly tender tracks in a stationary studio environment, O' Be Joyful was recorded in a variety of motel rooms, the van, their house and their backyard. These unconventional environments proved to be an appropriate backdrop for the raw, honest performances and the imaginative, emotive songwriting that's created when Cary Ann and Michael get going. They refer to their unique ethos as Creatio Ex Nihilo, which is "the idea of creating something out of nothing."
For such a nomadic, touring twosome, it's no surprise that O' Be Joyful is slap full of lyrical locations and landmarks. There's over a dozen geographical references in "Birmingham" alone! The rollicking road map vibe is later revisited in "Kemba's Got the Cabbage Moth Blues" as well. As the album progresses though, it's clear to hear that Shovels and Rope have certainly paid their dues out on the road, simultaneously chasing a dream and remembering home. Powerful lead single "Birmingham" serves as both an impressive album opener and an autobiographical back story for the romantic duo. The details of their beginnings, sung to a countrified railroad shuffle, is elevated even more in my eyes by using some of the lines from the old hymn "Rock of Ages" for the chorus. It brings such a huge smile to my face every time I hear them sing it. This type of lyrical storytelling and relaxed alt-country instrumentation is also found on the banjo-led "Lay Low," the atmospheric sway of "Carnival" and the touching, dream-like "This Means War." Cary Ann and Michael also specialize in their own certain type of bluesy, backyard stomp and clap on songs like "O' Be Joyful," "Tickin' Bomb," "Keeper," and "Hail Hail." However, I think the best example of their powerful mixture (and my favorite song on O' Be Joyful) is the frenzied rockabilly thump of "Kemba's Got the Cabbage Moth Blues." Fish and grits fo sho little lady.
You can hear "Kemba's Got the Cabagge Moth Blues" for yourself below, as it soundtracks the trailer for their upcoming documentary, The Ballad of Shovels and Rope:
Because I really love these guys (and all you readers as well), here's another bonus video of the title track "O' Be Joyful" showcasing a little bit of the band out on the road: