The music world has known its fair share of unforgettable husband-wife duos, from Johnny and June to Jack and Meg. Two years ago, the Charleston-based married duo Shovels & Rope — consisting of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst — exploded onto the festival scene with an unharnessed charisma and on-stage animalistic magnetism that left audiences floored. With non-stop touring and sweat-drenched performances, Trent and Hearst continue to prove that they belong among the ranks of great married musical duos.
Last month, Shovels & Rope offered up more of their soulful, folk-country flair with the duo’s new album, “Swimmin’ Time,” a nautical narrative of love and loss, drenched in haunting harmonies and stripped-down, simple arrangements. On “Swimmin’ Time,” Trent and Hearst dive deep into the abyss of emotion to give listeners a glimpse into their passionate, personal voyage.
The album opens with “The Devil Is All Around,” a vivid gospel-rock love song. With eyes closed, lyrics come to life and the listener can envision Trent and Hearst fighting through life’s obstacles together — ‘til death does part them. “Bridge On Fire” feels like a 50s throwback with a drum-rich tempo and deliberate harmonious crescendos, leaving a trail of burnt hopes and dreams in its ashy wake.
“Evil” turns up the rock ‘n’ roll and perpetuates the album’s devilish theme, with confessions of violent and ugly sins that drip with an honesty strong enough to tear down facades. “After The Storm” starts to pick up the wreckage from the first three tracks and highlights the power of Shovels & Rope’s magically interwoven vocals. Though the bulk of the track stays low and slow, it truly shines in the chorus’ momentous waves and surges of beautiful, yet guttural cries.
“Fish Assassin” is a playful but quick stomp-clapper that brings listeners to the muddy banks of intercostal waterways. “Coping Mechanism” gives listeners a current spin on a 50s rock ‘n’ roll standard, with bouncy background keys and delta blues overtones. “Pinned” leans on Shovels & Rope’s country-folk foundations and translates as a timeless duet about broken promises, cheating and unsolicited advice.
The title track, “Swimmin’ Time” buoys to the surface with church choir intensity and ghostly sink-or-swim premonitions, conjuring up buried thoughts of an apocalyptic flood. In line with the aquatic theme, “Stono River Blues” pays tribute to the waterway that flows near the duo’s home, and evokes images of Trent and Hearst exploring the tidal channel’s nooks and crannies. While the track can certainly be taken literally, metaphors are strategically anchored throughout, giving it a depth that is commonly found in Shovels & Rope songwriting.
“Ohio” takes listeners on a trip down to the murky waters of Louisiana with blazing horns and a gritty outlaw story. The brassy sway of “Ohio” adds another layer of sound to the album, giving it an even more interesting acoustic texture. “Mary Ann & One Eyed Dan” is a playful, diner love story filled with faith and potential. “Save The World” follows suit with a positivity and sweetness that permeates the energy and love often seen on stage between Trent and Hearst.
The album comes to a close with “Thresher,” a homage to the USS Thresher (SSN-593), a nuclear-powered attack submarine that was lost at sea off the coast of Cape Cod in 1963. The track chronicles the last minutes for the 129 submariners upon the vessel. With moments of faint, garbled communications and fading sonar pings to carry out the track, Shovels & Rope recreates the sinking with an eerie authenticity. Ending the album with “Thresher” leaves listeners mournful and uneasy, but also forces introspective and empathetic thought. It represents the duo’s intention and intensity like no other song on the album.
“Swimmin’ Time” may just be one of this year’s best albums. In an age when listeners can pick and choose tracks from any album, track order and album themes seem to get lost in the iTunes shuffle. However, “Swimmin’ Time” is an album that needs to be listened to from start to finish, in order. Trent and Hearst have created an emblematic masterpiece that is greater than the sum of its parts. Collectively, the album floats above the rest while maintaining a depth of soul and spirit that can shine through the thickest, foggy night. “Swimmin’ Time” sails effortlessly across the most critical of ears and marks another success in Shovels & Rope’s musical passage.