Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, the husband-and-wife duo comprising Shovels & Rope, sound like a unified act. Rather than trading leads like most groups with multiple formidable singers, Trent and Hearst sing together in equally leveled harmony, and they’re as dexterous with their instruments as they are with their voices. Although independent and headstrong enough to record much of the follow-up to 2012’s breakthrough debut O’ Be Joyful by themselves in their home studio, Swimmin’ Time, like its name implies, showcases the fluidity of Shovels & Rope.
Not confined to one genre (and not to be pigeonholed as part of the all-encompassing nu-folk), Shovels & Rope wade through country, Americana, blues and roots-rock throughout their second full-length album. Opener and lead single “The Devil Is All Around” channels both the Deep South’s foot stomping and imagery, as they reckon with “how far you’ll go to make your peace with God.” That swampy swagger returns throughout Trent and Hearst’s best tracks on the album. The less-than-90-second “Fish Assassin” showcases both of their raw voices over nothing but percussion. “Stono River Blues,” which pays homage to the couple’s current hometown of Charleston, S.C., wails with a rare guitar solo and “Ohio” slinks with swanky brass evocative of New Orleans. Even though the ballads on Swimmin’ Time tend to float downstream, overall, Shovels & Rope’s sophomore LP manages to capture the duo’s raucous spirit and live intensity.