Review: Shovels & Rope - Swimmin' Time

Shovels & Rope have created a Southern Gothic masterpiece on 'Swimmin' Time'
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Swimmin Time is a universe filled with weird, wounded characters. Some are shady and sinister, others more simple. There are misfits and outcasts like the tobacco-spittin' tomboy with a soft spot for the modern day Boo Radley in the magnificent "Evil" or "Mary Ann and One-Eyed Dan," a circus waitress and small-time journalist. These may not seem the most obvious candidates to hold up a mirror to us but even oddballs get mired in the same struggles and circumstances we do. It's a world where you visit a sinister world of fools and con men and you've got what it takes to save the world... just before a lonesome sonar beacon signals the USS Thresher's slow descent to the bottom of the ocean.

Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst take an old time approach to telling timely and timeless stories, conveying them with dark imagery and humor, placing them in murky setting but with warmth and tenderness. They do more than spin yarns, though, opening the album with the question of what we'll do to find a little peace of mind, especially when confronted with overwhelming struggle. "After The Storm" is one part confessional, one part plea for redemption. Hearst and Trent sound as though they're coming out of their skin, their voices raw and breaking.

There are a mix of methods on this record ranging from Louisiana swamp groove ("Ohio"), Texas cowboy tales ("Stono River Blues"), and doo wop ("Coping Mechanism"), all comfortably residing with the roots-oriented sounds the duo introduced on O Be Joyful. The magic of the record is how they bend these styles, sounds, and emotional complexities and unify them in a manner that is quintessentially Southern in personality, textures. instrumentation, and feel.

The musical pastiche and quirky, homespun yarns are engaging enough on a sonic level but what makes this album special and gives the work grit and heart is the chemistry between Hearst and Trent. They are both excellent vocalists and could easily trade lead roles but there are very few solo moments. They sing in unison and harmony through nearly every chorus and every verse. They also throw conventional approaches to melody and harmony on their head, at times creating melodies in the space between their two vocal lines rather than establishing separate melody and harmony vocals.

Swimmin Time is a Southern Gothic masterpiece and the best album of 2014.