On their fifth album (and first for New West Records), Shovels & Rope show that they keep getting better as performers and recording artists. Released in 2016, Little Seeds is the strongest piece of record-making Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have delivered to date. Their sweet and sour harmonies balance off one another beautifully, Trent's rumbling guitar work finds a graceful middle ground between twang and crunch, and they've learned how to make their music fit the dynamics of the songs, expanding from an intimate fireside guitar pull to a grand-scale blowout at their command. Trent also produced Little Seeds, and he's given it a dry but rich sound that's natural while playing to the strengths of the performances. However, despite the good news, Little Seeds is still weighed down by Shovels & Rope's two Achilles' heels -- they're better performers than songwriters, and even though they're very good at what they do, they're doing something that isn't terribly different than what plenty of other Americana acts do (and often do better). Trent and Hearst are certainly capable of writing good songs, but there are just not enough of them on Little Seeds, and while the indictment of racism in "BWYR" and the murderous shaggy-dog tale of "Botched Execution" stand out, most of the tracks here fail to stick in the memory after the album is done. And for all the strength of the group's lean and wiry sound, too often this album makes them sound like they have only a few moves in their repertoire that they keep rearranging to shrinking effect. Little Seeds has enough going for it that one hopes Shovels & Rope will start coming up with ideas that match their skill set, but this is not the album that delivers that breakthrough.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming