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Shovels & Rope with Tre Burt
“It’s not heavy metal, but in our guts, it feels a bit like Heavy Metal,” says Michael Trent of the band’s new album, Manticore due Feb. 18. Next year, 2022, will mark ten years since Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent released their debut album O’ Be Joyful, the first formally billed as “Shovels & Rope.” And it was in the rear courtyard suite of the Decatur St. house belonging to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans where Michael and Cary Ann began polishing up the songs that became Manticore. There was a piano in the room and a little desk. There were piles of scattered and folded papers lying on the bed and copious digital ideas in the form of voice memos. And despite the pounding parades in the surrounding streets, it was quiet in the afternoon.
The songs and stories that make up Manticore are visceral, bold and at times deeply personal. And while all those adjectives could be used to describe the duo, this time around it rings true in a way that hits differently – or at least harder. Perhaps everything hits harder for everyone these days. And while most of these songs were written before the pandemic, they were all recorded at a time when everyone was inside. It takes aim at the human experience and does so without pulling a single punch: reflections on idol worship, homelessness, social justice, the experience of fierce parental love and marital strife are all on the menu here; and in true American fashion, the helpings are plentiful.
Manticore was initially intended to be a stripped back affair. The songs were written with the expectation that they would feature almost nothing but acoustic guitar, piano and their two voices. But with the time afforded to the band by the complete stalling of their industry, they returned to the recordings and indulged the opportunity to expand the sound of the album with no pressures or expectations regarding the calendar.
The album closes with the somber reflection of “Human Race”, a despairing ode to life in a troubled headspace. Appropriately, the song is more than just an album closer; it serves as a reminder of what still makes Shovels & Rope wholly unique, even ten years later amidst a sea of their peers. They are still master commentators of the human experience and maintain a rare gift that allows them to address the most gnarly of life’s lows while always keeping an eye on hope, compassion and community. The album’s title, Manticore, at its most simplistic, is a playful combination of a Leo and a Scorpio combined into one beast. A simple google search of the word will bring up depictions that are comical, fantastical, intimidating, aggressive, playful, beautiful and even mildly terrifying. At their best, all of these can be said of Shovels & Rope, but no matter which adjective feels most appropriate in a given song, show or album, it is always powerful. Thankfully, Manticore finds them at their (weary) best. It feels like a hard-won summation of the band’s first act, shedding away notions the public may have had of them or that they had of themselves. The second act of Shovels & Rope looks beautifully weathered and wiser – shining a bright light at the end of this very dark tunnel.