Americana In The 21st Century
Swimmin’ Time, the sophomore album of husband and wife duo Shovels and Rope (Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst), displays remarkable confidence throughout its thirteen tracks- a quality perhaps spurred by the band’s sudden push into the spotlight this past year. Having recently played a slew of festival dates (Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Coachella and Newport Folk among others), The Late Show With David Letterman and winning Song of The Year at the 2013 Americana Music Honors & Awards, Shovels and Rope is fast progressing through the anonymity endemic to rising acts.
Their ongoing national tour continues to prove quite popular, and, aided by the novelty of the duo’s new album, offers a side of roots and country rarely seen. While one might expect a married couple to craft an album of love songs, Swimmin’ Time is evidence for the contrary; it is a record of whimsically dark narratives- detailing the likes of addicts and ‘fish assassins’ with decidedly southern charm- and throws love to the backseat with unblinking reserve.
Playing with the sensibility of a southern gothic narrative, Swimmin’ Time emerges as a spirited argument for Americana’s sound in the 21st century. Variable, dark and raw, the album presents a junction of playfulness and severity, drawing power from the haunting compatibility of Trent and Hearst’s voices. A rich sense of earthiness pervades throughout, (see “The Devil is All Around” and “After the Storm”) which at times lends a dose of genuineness missing from the group’s 2012 debut O’ Be Joyful Key to this is that the superb production value does not overstep its means, and can especially be heard in songs like “Stono River Blues,” which hits like a Lumineers track minus the pop pretension and with considerably more to say. The record thrives on this sort of decisive genius, and carves out the unnecessary; every song is needed, and every song is a statement.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Swimmin’ Time is the album’s loyalty to its historical influences while remaining very much a product of 2014. A temptation far too often sampled by contemporary roots and Americana artists is to ‘reproduce’ the sounds of fifty years ago; Shovels and Rope created a work that credits its influences, but could have never been made previously. It is, in many respects, just as vital to the progression of Americana and country as was Lucinda Williams was fifteen years ago.
And while it would, of course, be premature to label Swimmin’ Time as anything other than an inspiring new release, one can only wonder how it will be talked about five or ten years from now.