Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, the South Carolina duo that refer to themselves somewhat obliquely as Shovels and Rope, make a decidedly assertive impression with "O' Be Joyful," their first foray on an actual record label and first effort to gain noticeable acclaim. Relying on no more than a pair of guitars, rudimentary percussion, harp and only an occasional keyboard, they create a vivid down home impression that incorporates elements of folk, country, bluegrass, primal rock 'n' roll and hillbilly hoedown music, a combination they delineate on the song Cavalier. It's amusing, charming, rustic and seemingly all off the cuff, an unpretentious sound with back porch appeal.
To be sure, the unhinged feel the couple work so hard to deliver comes across in unexpected ways. Midway through, there's a live intro, seemingly taken from a club performance that has the proprietor urging his patrons to hush their conversations and give attention to the music. So too, with the set's final song, bits of background conversation permeate the proceedings, further affirming the makeshift feel. Not that it's needed - with the rugged, gospel-infused Birmingham, loose and limber shuffles like Keeper and Kembra's Got the Cabbage Moth Blues, and the jazzy ragtime revelry of Hail Hail, that sense of spontaneity is expressed quite clearly.
Not that "O' Be Joyful' consistently lives up to its title; Lay Low provides a low-cast croon, while the weary ballad Carnival and the cooing chorus of This Means War assures a sound that's sobering and resolute.
Ultimately, Shovels and Rope may not come across as the most sophisticated pair, but they do create quite an appealing diversion with their expressive voices and ability to do more with less. And that's a joyful noise indeed.