Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, the South Carolina duo that refer to themselves somewhat obliquely as Shovels & Rope, made a formidable impression with their three initial albums, resulting in critical kudos and a significant imprint in the Americana community. Relying mainly on no more than a pair of guitars, rudimentary percussion, harmonica and occasional keyboard, they’ve created a vivid down-home sound that effectively integrates elements of folk, country, bluegrass, primal rock ‘n’ roll and some hillbilly hoedowns. Charming, rustic and seemingly all the cuff, theirs is an unpretentious approach befitting those back-porch roots.
That spontaneous feel the couple works so hard to deliver sometimes manifests in unexpected ways. Busted Jukebox Volume 1 is a curious side-step in an ongoing trajectory, due to the fact that they’ve opted for an album featuring all covers and special guests, the kind of thing most bands don’t attempt until much later in an established career. Given that they’ve staked their claims based on a signature style that eschews outside influences, it’s a curious decision to be sure, but one that’s more than satisfactory due to the knowing treatment they laud on this material, which is all drawn from disparate sources. Some choices aren’t necessarily unexpected; their take on Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” pairs them with Shakey Graves and finds them offering the due reverence Young finds among his Americana admirers. “Leaving Louisiana In the Broad Daylight,” made famous by Emmylou Harris, is the one song they cover wholly on their own. It’s another apt choice, one dictated by both instinct and intuition.
Some of the other songs in the set list are more curious, however. Their reading of Dave Davies’ “Strangers” featuring The Milk Carton Kids, matches the circumspect of the Kinks’ original, but their version of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny) ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding,” made popular by Elvis Costello, falters in comparison with this moribund treatment that even Lucius fails to salvage. On the other hand, when they join forces with Preservation Jazz Band to tackle Lou Reed’s somber “Perfect Day,” they instil a celebratory sound Reed may never have imagined.
Ultimately, Shovels & Rope show their mettle by temporarily tackling the popular songbook. After all, showing reverence for the classics is generally an ideal way to affirm one’s own credence. Still, given their momentum thus far, one can only hope Shovels & Rope will be back to digging into their own devices the next time around.