Shovels and Rope
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001
While the city of Los Angeles has been both an inspiration and a home to the four members of Dawes, they found themselves traveling East last fall to record their third album in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina with newly enlisted producer Jacquire King. It was a chance to hunker down and work each day for a month away from familiar landmarks and routines. The tracks they laid down at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studio have yielded a 12-song disc of tremendous sonic and narrative clarity, book-ended in classic album fashion by two very different versions of the wistful “Just Beneath The Surface” – a misleading title, really, since the songs stacked in between dig so deep. Stories Don’t End is not so much a departure from the quartet’s previous efforts as a distillation of them. It spotlights the group’s maturing skills as arrangers, performers and interpreters who shape the raw material supplied by chief songwriter and lead vocalist Taylor Goldsmith into an artfully concise and increasingly soulful sound.
Once again, Goldsmith displays a particular gift for tunes that balance tough and tender, hardboiled and heartbroken. As a writer, he prowls his psyche like a forties detective, looking for clues to the mysteries of life and love. “Just My Luck” has the irresistible pull of a vintage country tune, though the arrangement is understated and contemporary. If Goldsmith’s vocal delivery weren’t plaintive enough, the band ups the emotional ante with a beautiful wordless coda that intertwines Tay Strathairn’s piano and Goldsmith’s lead guitar. Similarly “Something In Common” is a morning-after shuffle that builds into a bigger and more dramatic track before dropping back to a quiet melancholic finish. Goldsmith takes a few simple words, like “something in common,” and uses them like chapter headings to develop a compelling story, full of unexpected twists, from verse to verse. “Someone Will” includes the same kind of word play while boasting a little more swagger. “Hey Lover,” a cover of a tongue-in-cheek tune by Dawes’ good buddy Blake Mills, is a playful mid-album break with Taylor Goldsmith and his young brother, drummer Griffin Goldsmith, trading off lead vocals.
Before he started composing for the album, says Taylor, “I went through a Joan Didion tear.” It was right after he read the legendary author’s Democracy that he found the title, Stories Don’t End, in her work. Though Didion is currently a New Yorker, she is most associated with Southern California, its culture of the sixties and seventies, a subject she examined in gimlet-eyed prose. When Goldsmith started penning new songs after several months on the road in support of Dawes’ 2011 disc, Nothing Is Wrong, his writing was even more keenly observant. “From a Window Seat” was the first he completed and, he admits, “It’s a very singular song. A lot of the songs on the record can be a little more broad, about a period in someone’s life or trying to explore a certain feeling. This song is about a specific experience of being on an airplane and that’s not a very poetic or lyrical idea.” Yet Goldsmith, employing an accumulation of small details, once again finds the bigger picture, about the narrator’s past and his (and our) uncertain future, about the history lurking beneath the swimming pool-dotted landscape below him. Just as important is the track itself—lean, propulsive and guitar-driven – lending urgency to Goldsmith’s in-flight musings. Similarly, “Bear Witness,” a last-minute addition to the lineup that the band arranged during the Asheville sessions, is an almost cinematically vivid rendering of a man having a conversation with his child from his hospital bed.
Nothing Is Wrong had garnered considerable acclaim, with London’s Independent declaring, “It’s as close to a perfect Americana album as there’s been this year.” Up to then, the band had relied on good friend Jonathan Wilson as producer, cutting its 2009 debut disc, North Hills, at Wilson’s Laurel Canyon studio and its follow-up with Wilson at a larger room in Echo Park. But Wilson’s own career as a solo artist was taking off following the release of his Gentle Spirit disc, and the band began a search for a new collaborator. King boasted an impressive and unusual resume, having produced an eclectic range of artists, including Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse, Norah Jones and the Punch Brothers. Says keyboardist Strathairn, “He’s really easy to work with. As a producer he doesn’t want to be the artist, he simply tries to make the band sound the best that the band can be. And the work speaks for itself.”
Recording with King and foregoing the quickly cut, straight-to-analog tape approach of its first two recordings was a way, says Taylor, for Dawes “to push the boundaries of what might be expected of us, or feel like a comfort zone for us, while trying to be the same band we always are. That was important to us. We didn’t want to abandon anybody’s sense of who we were and, more importantly, our sense of ourselves. We wanted to stay true to this thing that we had while starting to widen the spectrum a little bit.”
The reprise of “Just Beneath the Surface” at the end of the disc, however, is a first-take document of the band figuring out the tune together, and it was too good not to keep. As bassist Wylie Gelber recalls, “We knew the vibe we were going for and we were running through it while Jacquire was setting up. But we were completely unaware that he was recording us. We were fooling around and towards the end of it, we stopped for a minute and Jacquire said, Hey man, I think we’ve got it. We tried to beat that take but we couldn’t. You can hear it there, you can feel that it’s the first time it’s being played, it’s a simple song and there’s a subtle art to doing it. It ebbs and flows.”
“With Jacquire,” explains Taylor, “we were able to hold on to an essence of what we had been, but I feel now, more than with our first two records, that this makes a case that we’re a band from 2013. There a lot of bands that harken back to a period or style of a different time and that can be really limiting. That was never our intention.”
“The album is very honest,” concludes Strathairn. “It’s us.”
- - Michael Hill
Shovels and Rope
It’s not all that unusual for musicians to talk the talk about taking a less-is-more approach to their work – but it’s rare indeed for artists to really walk the walk, and apply that philosophy across the board. Over the better part of a decade, Shovels & Rope have done just that, cutting unnecessary frills from their songs, not to mention the very way they live their musical lives.
Mississippi-born, Nashville-bred Cary Ann Hearst and Texas-born, Colorado-raised Michael Trent forged singular paths as solo artists before connecting – both musically and personally – in Charleston, South Carolina. While they’d both had burgeoning solo careers (Cary Ann earned kudos for her 2006 album Dust and Bones, Michael with his band, The Films, as well as his own solo outings), they quickly found that both their voices – which entwine with eerie beauty in their haunting harmonies – and philosophies matched up perfectly, and a beautiful partnership was born.
“Consciously or not, we’ve always insulated ourselves from outside influences,” says Cary Ann. “The key, for us, is to be authentic to ourselves – and, sometimes to a fault, we’ve managed to do that. I don’t think we’d be able to keep doing this if we backed off from what we were doing when we started.”
There’s no backing off or backing down on Swimmin’ Time, the duo’s much-anticipated sophomore set as Shovels & Rope, an album that brims with the confidence, energy and sinew of a band that’s accustomed to treating their career as a marathon, rather than a sprint. The album, recorded at the studio Trent constructed in the couple’s home, finds them cutting a new path through the sonic thickets they navigated so nimbly on their breakthrough bow, O’ Be Joyful – a disc that won rave reviews from outlets like Mojo (which called it “thrilling”) and Filter, which said “[they] were solid singer-songwriters on their own, but this is truly a thing of magic.”
On Swimmin’ Time – a title that nods to the aquatic theme running through the disc’s songs — Hearst and Trent bob and weave through a combination of witty, playful tales (like “Fish Assassin”) and brooding murder ballads (like the horn-tinged New Orleans shuffle “Ohio”) with a rare combination of intimacy and swagger. They know when to grab the listener by the shoulders and shake (as on the fiercely roiling opener “The Devil Is All Around”) and when to put a caring arm around those same shoulders in order to spin a gentler yarn (like “After the Storm,” a tale of surviving rough waters, both literally and spiritually).
“We weren’t trying to make a particular kind of record, but we knew early on that there would be some evolution,” says Trent, who also produced Swimmin’ Time. “There are all kinds of dark undertones, but there are other colors, too. Every song kind of played off, and built on, the ones that came before, so they fit together really well.”
That seamless construction helps Swimmin’ Time slide past the ears and into the memory banks with remarkable ease, each of its songs leaving a bit of an indelible mark, from the sonically brooding “Stono River Blues” (which could easily pass for a lost Grimm’s Fairy Tale) to the chiming “Save the World,” a sort of semaphore flag signaling hope on the horizon, to the woozy, closing-time waltz of “Coping Mechanism.”
“Our working model has always been to use what we have lying around,” says Cary Ann. “It’s just that this time, we happened to have an organ lying around, we had a piano lying around…we definitely had more resources at hand, but we didn’t want to seem ostentatious or anything. Besides which, we still have to recreate the songs live, so there’s a limit – even though Michael can play five things at once, like a wind-up toy.”
Those live shows have played a huge part in building Shovels & Rope’s reputation among audiences and their peers – the latter of whom voted the duo in for two 2013 Americana Music Awards, Emerging Artist of the Year as well as Song of the Year (for the vivid, semi-autobiographical “Birmingham”). Over the past two years, Cary Ann and Michael kept their sleeves rolled up and their voices raised, an M.O. that helped them eventually sell more than 60,000 albums the old fashioned way – reaching one listener at a time, and making each one feel like part of the Shovels & Rope family.
As a result, they were able to trade their well-loved and road-weary van for an R.V. and segue from tiny, sweat-soaked dives to larger halls, not to mention eye-opening performances at events like the Newport Folk Festival, Coachella and Lollapalooza. They may have had camera crews following them – for the intimate, revelatory documentary The Ballad of Shovels & Rope, which has been making the film festival circuit this past year – but they didn’t cut back on what Cary Ann calls “windshield time,” and certainly didn’t let their egos grow in tandem.
“Word of mouth has been a huge part of our story,” says Michael. “We just toured and toured, opening up for bigger bands and playing anywhere we could. Sometimes we felt more like t-shirt selling long-distance truckers. It wasn’t like we had a huge song that came out of nowhere and was suddenly on the radio all the time. I’d be terrified if that was the case.”
While they didn’t start showing up in the tabloids as a result, “Birmingham” (the number-one song on American Songwriter’s year-end list) and the rest of O’ Be Joyful did put Shovels & Rope on the larger stage in many ways – from an appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman to an acclaimed set on Austin City Limits. But as they continue to prove, night after night on tour, they aren’t about to put their blue collars into mothballs. Cary Ann jokingly says, “We keep getting more famous, but we aren’t getting any better,” before turning serious.
“This is something we’ve both always dreamed of doing,” she says. “We enjoy each other’s music and we enjoy each other’s company. We thrive on doing exactly what we’re doing, and we’re making people happy with it. What could be better than that?”