While this album certainly seems like it could be a Christmas album (a mistake I made as well), it’s too early for that. This is, instead, one of the best folk albums of 2012, one that sees Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent perfect the male/female folk duo with minimalist, yet flawless instrumentation and some incredible vocals. O’ Be Joyful is a heartfelt, emotion-filled set of songs.
The album kicks off with “Birmingham”, a song about never really feeling at home that slowly builds to a powerful climax. It’s a song about wanting to get away but not knowing how or realizing that the desire isn’t actually there. “Making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hope,/ With two old guitars like a shovel and a rope.” Hearst’s vocals in this song are particularly impressive. “O’ Be Joyful”, the title track, shows off Shovels and Rope’s particularly effective brand of minimalist folk. With only two people, a guitar, a harmonica, a couple drums, a maracca, and a keyboard (sometimes), it’s impressive that the two of them can make such incredible music. The title track begins “O’ be joyful, is that what you’re brewin’?/ Does your daddy know that’s what you’re doing?” and paints the picture of a young woman enjoying her youth and being misunderstood because of it. “Ain’t it great to be alive?/ Ain’t it nice to be fighting on the winning side?”
“Hail, Hail” and “Tickin’ Bomb” are both more rock-tinged tunes with bluesy guitar riffs and simple lyrics. These songs aren’t complicated, but they’re better for it. They both show that the duo can do more than The Civil Wars’ style folk. Perhaps the best and most complete song on the album is “Shank Hill St.”, which according to Trent at their Pittsburgh concert is “our song about murder”. It has a dark, minor quality about it and it’s near perfect. “It’ll be a long time till the sun shines on Shank Hill St. again.” I’ll let the music speak for itself.
If you’re a fan of the slower, more melodic folk songs, “Lay Low” and “This Means War” would be more to your liking. “Lay Low” is a song about leaving a lover and hoping to come back soon. “This Means War” is a really sad song; this is a folk album after all. It’s a song that you might want played at a funeral. It’s got an awesome background of a little girl talking to her grandpa (or so I imagine). It’s made more poignant by the choir of background hummers.
O’ Be Joyful is an album full of folk songs, tinged with rock and blues and accompanied by incredible songwriting and harmonies. If you could ask for more, I’m not sure why you would, but luckily you don’t have to. Just go buy Shovels and Rope’s new album.