Leave it to Americana duo Shovels and Rope to release one of the better albums of the second half of 2015! And all with the help of some classic tunes and a bevy of friends to help them out. It ends up being an extremely fun, breezy romp through songs that shouldn't sound as perky as they do. Yet after the initial moments of Neil Young's "Unknown Legend" with Shakey Graves assisting them, the listener gets the sense they've fallen into something well worth repeated listens.
Elsewhere, the duo have an eclectic array of performers on board, including Butch Walker on the foot-stomping "Bullet Belt," which Shovels and Rope and Walker shine on. Think of something a mash-up of The Gaslight Anthem and Marah would do, and you should get the gist of what's happening here. But the strength in the record is how some of the tunes are turned inside out, especially on the gentle, tension-free cover of Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" with Shovels and Rope accompanied by Lucius. Rather than the punk-ish arrangement it's known for, here the foursome go down a route that Mavis Staples would appreciate.
If there's one track which might miss the mark only marginally it's "Patience." Here with The Milk Carton Kids beside them, Shovels and Rope do little to improve on Axl's classic delivery. One benefit might be not seeing any snake dancing while they perform it! Not bad, but pales compared to the prior Nick Lowe cover. Fortunately the happy-go-lucky roots-y "Boys Can Never Tell" with J Roddy Walston fares quite strongly as Cary Ann Hearst and Walston meld their harmonies nicely.
Following some old-school '60s doo-wop soul that oozes from "Nothing Takes The Place Of You," Shovels and Rope opt for a Nine Inch Nails tune. This is given a pure rockabilly ditty flavoring with Hearst, hubby Michael Trent and Caroline Rose making it farm more rural than Reznor's industrial-laced gem. Yet by far the highlight is some incredibly bizarre blend of Shovels and Rope, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Lou Reed's "Perfect Day." Sounding like a New Orleans-based dirge, Trent and Hearst keep the arrangement barren and sparse unlike numerous richly textured versions in recent years.
A fun project like this has no business being this spectacular, but if this just the first in a series of similar releases, the busted jukebox Shovels and Rope own is in excellent working condition!