Last year, people really started freaking out about Shovels and Rope, a spitfire husband-and-wife alt-country duo from Charleston, South Carolina. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent released O' Be Joyful in mid-2012, but in 2013, dive-bar gigs graduated into the Late Show with David Letterman and Austin City Limits. They ended the year named emerging artist of the year by the Americana Music Association, which also named "Birmingham" song of the year.
The problem with having a banner year is how to follow it. Swimmin' Time has been touted as one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the summer, and it delivers. It's bigger and bolder than Joyful, and the songs are sharper. "The Devil is All Around" is bedecked with swelling Hammond organ; rollicking barroom piano guides the swinging "Coping Mechanism." Then there's the surefire single "Evil," a dark and swampy slow-burner built on plodding drums, ripping fuzz bass and a chorus of multi-tracked voices.
Swimmin' Time shines brightest when Hearst and Trent keep the arrangements spartan, putting their keen harmonies front and center. Following a sweetly sighing harmonica solo, "After the Storm" goes a cappella for the last minute of its six-minute runtime, Hearst and Trent's voices braiding around an ascending melody that amplifies the song's shining-beacon optimism. With Swimmin' Time as exemplary as it is, it surely won't be before stardom is reached.
The band is at the Uptown Amphitheatre on Aug. 21.