Sunday, July 16, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1029: Shovels and Rope

I’ve had a lovely weekend hanging with my wife, chilling out and watching Wimbledon. Yesterday I watched one my favourite players, Garbine Muguruza, win the women’s final. When I’m done this review I’m going to go see if my favourite men’s player of all time, Roger Federer, can add to his legend.

On the musical front I followed through on my threat of buying a bunch of metal music on Friday, adding albums by King Diamond, Cirith Ungol, Iron Maiden, Opeth, Ghost and Type O Negative to the collection. I also found indie folk albums by Julie Miller and Josh Ritter I’d been looking for. After all, man does not live by metal alone.

Disc 1029 is…Self-Titled
Artist: Shovels and Rope

Year of Release: 2008

What’s up with the Cover? A dove having a good day and a cow having a bad one.

How I Came To Know It: I was originally introduced to the band by my friend Justin, but this particular album was me digging through their back catalogue. You can’ buy this album on CD separately. It only comes as an insert with the record. This annoyed me, but I overcame. I bought the record for $30, opened it and took out the CD and then sold the record back to the same clerk for $14. So basically, I got the CD for $16, which is what I would have paid anyway.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Shovels and Rope albums. This one is pretty awesome, but it falls just short of 2014’s “Swimmin’ Time” (reviewed back at Disc 978). I’ll put it in second place overall.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

Shovels & Rope self-titled debut album shows that husband and wife team Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent knew exactly what kind of music they wanted to make from the beginning. All the elements they would refine on “Swimmin’ Time” six years later are here: sublime harmonies, knee-slapping rhythms and a talent for keeping things sparse and real.

Indie folk can sometimes steer unpleasantly into detached irony, where a band is too self-aware that they are making ‘old timey’ music, and intent on letting us in on the joke rather than feeling the music down deep. Shovels & Rope keep it real, and their love of the rich tradition of Americana comes across crisp and clear. On “Mexico” they even have a verse where a lover is saying their partner can go, but they’ll have to leave the music collection behind:

I won't let you leave, I won't let you leave
Not with all my Django, Emmylou and Steve
I won’t let you leave, I won't let you leave
Not with my Revival tucked down in your sleeve
If you're gonna go, take the ones you gave to me all the way to Mexico”

Ah, the division of the music collection after a break up. If it were my I wouldn’t part with my Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle or Gillian Welch’s “Revival” (bonus points if you caught that one) but I might let Django Reinhardt go. I like it but I almost never put it on.

But I digress…

The band plays crisp and clear throughout, with every word enunciated and lots of space in the sparse production to let their voices shine. Most of the singing is done in harmony - often loose, sometimes tight – but always emotionally evocative.

If anything this first record is more raw and real than later releases, with many songs with just vocal and one or two instruments. “Magdelina” is a guitar, a banjo and a splash of tambourine, with each one having lots of room to stand out and add its dimension to the song. On “Can’t Hardly Stand It” the biggest non-vocal element are hand claps, but that’s all it needs to work its magic. All that empty space leaves lots of room for the vocals to resonate and sink in.

The songs have the steady roll of trains, cars and landscapes filled with distance, all used to underscore the hard-scrabble lives of the characters making their way in the world. “Boxcar” features a man bleeding out after a crime spree gone wrong, and “Gasoline” is a town dying just as painfully.

On “1,200 Miles” the slow death is a relationship. Here the distance is not only the backdrop to the scene, but an active antagonist driving two people apart. And the rapid fire delivery of lines like:

“If you wanna love me baby then I wish you would
‘cause I woke up feeling like damaged goods
And I learned to live with the consequence
Of hanging my heart on your barbed-wire fence”

Underscores the urgent need to fix things on the home front before it is too late.

There are bluesy elements on the album as well, that are what the White Stripes might have sounded like if they unplugged and went folk. These songs I like less, but the way they dig in helps to provide a counterpoint to the campfire sing-a-long feel of the other songs. They ground the album with some well-placed grit.

This album was a thoroughly enjoyable listen and although relatively new to my collection is going to get a lot of play in the months and years ahead.

Best tracks: Gasoline, Boxcar, Magdelina, 1200 Miles, Build Around Your Heart a Wall, Mexico

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