REVIEW: Shovels & Rope “Manticore”


Shovels & Rope — Manticore

Like the mythical beast bearing the album’s title, Shovels & Rope have always existed as an amalgamation of disparate sounds and influences that meld into something greater than their parts. The Manticore is a legendary animal combing the head of a man, body of a lion, and tail of a scorpion. Horns often adorn its crown as well, adding to the menacing nature of the beast. Shovels & Rope combine gritty rhythms, full throated vocals, and powerful piano to drive forth a myriad of images at one turn playful and exuberant at another dark and mysterious as they embody their self-imposed manticore moniker.

Manticore presents a welcomed addition to Shovels & Rope’s catalogue that expands on the piano-and-drums driven sound they perfected and have been building on since Swimming Time. Manticore finds Shovels & Rope back in these swampy tannin waters after a playful detour with their Busted Jukebox series that culminated in a cover album of kids’ songs. Shovels & Rope are at their best when then embrace their southern gothic tendencies; on Manticore you can almost feel the humidity and hear the skeeters.

“Domino” kicks of Manticore like a rock ready to roll downhill over an insistent back beat as Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst’s vocals both embrace and do battle. “Tire fire, pumping out the smoke, firecracker strapped to a can of Coke, the squeal and the wheel and the speed and the choke, immortal ’cause America can’t ever let me go,” they sing in this ode to 1950’s car culture and recklessness.

“Bleed Me,” another early single, deals directly with a parent’s love for their children. Partners in music and life, Trent and Hearst repeat the refrain “you are the best part of me” as “Bleed Me” builds into a confirmation of their love for each other and their children.

Although many in this collection were written prior to the Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdown, the songs hold deeper meaning from today’s vantage. “Crown Victoria,” for example, professes that, “The oldеn days are over now, moss hangs on the brokеn crown, if it don’t work, then tear it down, and reach for something better….but I don’t wanna wait, I don’t wanna wait, I don’t wanna wait, for this to go away, I don’t wanna wait, I don’t wanna wait, I don’t wanna wait.” The repeated refrain rings out the anxiety and frustration we all feel as daily struggles linger with the promise of a better future just out of reach.

As if confirming problems with misinformation on the macro level and personal struggles on the micro, on “Divide & Conquer” they sing, “It was true what they said, about me and you how we were misled, I was so common, you were not bothered, we dressed it up, divide and conquer, town to town, we went hard, parked at the hotel, slept in our car, I’ll tell a joke, you sway and saunter, we found a way, divide and conquer.”

As a husband-and-wife duo balancing family, music, life on the road, and then under shutdown, Shovels & Rope have lived through many ups, downs, trials, and tribulations to find purpose and enduring hope on the other side.

Pick up Manticore, out now on Dualtone, and join Shovels & Rope on their most deeply personal and reflective journey to date.

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