After breaking through with Swimmin Time in 2014 and showing the breadth of their taste on the collaborative 2015 covers album Busted Jukebox Vol. 1, Shovels & Rope is looking to come back strong on their fourth album of original material. They’ve partly succeeded.
The best songs on Little Seeds feature some of the South Carolina duo’s most evocative writing, and their earthy vocal harmonies are as powerful as ever. But Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent sometimes come on too strong, as if they’d rather tell you about their reputation than show you how they earned it. That’s especially true of the first two songs on the album. Opener “I Know” comes across like a hater’s screed as Hearst and Trent scoff in unison at someone with “the smile and the style and the sizzle and the sex.” Over brawny power chords, they offer a devastating kiss-off: “I’ll see you in a year on your way back down.” Could be tongue-in-cheek, might be self-referential self-deprecation, but the combination of heavy-handed lyrics and a stale blues progression quickly turns tedious. “Botched Execution” has a nimbler touch, but the breathless torrent of lyrics with a macabre Southern Gothic twist is hard to follow and exhausting. The duo uses that frenetic sound to much better effect later on the album with “Buffalo Nickel,” which leaves space here and there among the jumble of overdriven guitars for the spare clink-clink-clink of piano, before wheeling into a spellbinding call-and-response chorus.
Little Seeds starts coming into focus by the third song. “St. Anne’s Parade” finds Hearst and Trent musing over an itinerant life in music, and with a simple mandolin part and delicate tremolo guitar accompanying their weary voices, it’s as strong a road song as anyone has written lately. “The Last Hawk” reads like a tribute to The Band, possibly delivered from the perspective of Garth Hudson. Shovels & Rope balances a robust blend of electric guitar and a booming kick drum with reflective vocals, and the result is at once triumphant and melancholy. “Johnny Come Outside” is laid-back and playful, with a stick-in-your-head refrain, while the somber “Mourning Song” and chaotic “Invisible Man” are a one-two punch inspired by Trent’s father, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
Such personal themes give way to the historical on “Missionary Ridge,” a folksy account of a bloody and decisive Civil War battle that Trent and Hearst deliver as a warning not to disturb the restless slumber of the dead. They’re just as restless about the living on “BWYR,” a darkly lit spoken-word call for tolerance and empathy in a time of partisan, and racial, divisions that included the murder of nine people during a prayer service at an African-American church last year in Charleston, Shovels & Rope’s hometown.
Understandably, there’s a despairing tone to the song: “Talkers talk, but nothing gets said,” Hearst and Trent intone. “And nothing gets done and the hate it spreads.” Yet they still find a glimmer of hope in the final verse, urging “black lives, white lives, yellow lives, red” to band together, even if only to share the dread. After all, every bit helps.