Humans have always had a complicated relationship with water. It is the most basic element needed to survive. It has represented adventure and travel into the unknown for millenia to those brave enough to sail across it. But thousands of people per year die from drowning. Millions of dollars worth of property is damaged every year by flooding. When you live on an island, as Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearts, the husband and wife duo known collectively as Shovels & Rope does, your relationship with water is intensified. So it's no surprise that the human fascination with water, good and bad, forms the bedrock upon which the band builds its new album, "Swimmin' Time", out Aug. 26.
When we spoke with Shovels & Rope just before their Bonnaroo appearance in June, they gave some insight into this theming: "We live on John's Island, SC, which is near Charleston. They call it the Low Country because there are so many rivers and marshlands and bridges so it's going to seep into the songwriting... Well, and living on the coast there's always anxiety about the water getting into the road. When the water gets in the road, we can't get off the island!"
After last year saw them break out in a big way, in large part thanks to word of mouth from their energetic live performances and their strong 2012 album "O' Be Joyful", Shovels & Rope has done the near impossible by delivering a follow up album that is better in almost every aspect. All thirteen of the songs on "Swimmin' Time" can rival the best work on "O' Be Joyful."
There's something for every taste here. If you like Shovels & Rope's raucous good time songs, you will be very happy with the goofy-sweet love song "Mary Ann and One-Eyed Dan" or the silly machismo present in "Fish Assassin", which manages to make dipping a line sound like a full contact sport. If you want ballads, the album's lead single "The Devil Is All Around" is there for you.
But it is when Shovels & Rope explores its dark side that "Swimmin' Time" pulls away from its predecessor into album of the year contender territory. "Evil" is a creepy stalker song with a Tom Waits-inspired vocal delivery and some surprisingly heavy Jack White style fuzz guitar riffs. The album's best song, the murder ballad "Ohio", manages to sound like something you might hear in a Prohibition era speakeasy while also sounding like it wouldn't be out of place on a Danny Elfman noir soundtrack to a Tim Burton movie.
What has made Shovels & Rope so endearing is their playfulness both on stage and album and that quality shines through even on the darkest tracks from "Swimmin' Time." The title track itself is a bit of a wink to the audience, with its summery "let's all go down to the watering hole" title hiding a global warming cautionary tale. Swimmin' time is only fun if you have some dry land to return to when you tire.
While the folk rock revolution of the last couple of years has seen a bit of a backlash recently due to bands like Mumford & Sons releasing follow up albums that are seen by some as too safe, Shovels & Rope won't have to worry about that. This is a band that could have very easily recorded thirteen riffs on "Birmingham" and made a lot of money milking that cow until it died. Instead, they've chosen to take the risks of losing the audience they've built by evolving their sound. It's a risk that has paid off creatively in a big way. It's always dangerous to judge how casual fans will react to a change in tone, there's enough of the elements that have made Shovels & Rope successful to appease them.