To really get to the heart of Shovels & Rope's new album By Blood, you have to go back to the dirtiest, most distorted, most chaotic moments on their previous album of original material, 2016's Little Seeds. Those moments, specifically the rough-hewn, distortion-coated rockers "Buffalo Nickel" and "Invisible Man" and the eerie, experimental, near-a capella track "Bwyr," took their sound, previously based in acoustic-guitar and-drums roots-rock, and made it darker, angrier, and a lot more visceral — and that's where By Blood really starts.
Almost every song on the new album has a moment where Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent dive into the muck, coating their still-gorgeous, still-raw vocal harmonies in needle-in-the-red fuzz, cranking up Trent's explosive, unruly electric guitars and giving Cary Ann's propulsive drumming so much volume that it threatened to blow my speakers.
These 10 tracks, recorded in the couple's home studio, bristle with a sort of sly mischief, sounding almost like the acoustic Shovels & Rope's mirror-universe evil twins. There are certainly moments that recall what Shovels & Rope used to be, most notably the bouncing acoustic ballad "C'mon Utah." But even that song goes into a more unhinged place, especially when Trent begins screaming like a scalded dog over the top of Hearst's more grounded vocal.
And there are beautiful moments, as well, like that part on shiver-inducing title track when the near-orchestral backdrop suddenly falls away, leaving only Hearst and Trent's voices and a lone acoustic guitar to carry the song.
But mostly, Shovels & Rope decided to go loud and weird this time out, taking the wide-ranging experimentation of their Busted Jukebox covers albums and applying that aesthetic to their original material. Those albums were more laid-back than By Blood, but that doesn't really matter. When you can dig into the stomp-and-clap buzzsaw "I'm Coming Out," the chilly, anthemic rocker "Mississippi Nuthin'," the swaying, psychotic soul ballad "Twisted Sisters," or the ping-pong rhythms of the window-rattling "Pretty Polly," who needs laid-back?
This record is bursting with ingenuity and the joy of creation, and it's easily Shovels & Rope's most zero-fucks-given release yet, which is pretty damned refreshing and more than a little brave, coming as it does at a time when more eyes are on the duo than ever.