Credit: Leslie Ryann Mckellar/Shovels & Rope
by Jonathan Keefe Music Rooted & Restless

Shovels & Rope | Busted Jukebox Volume 3

March 17, 2021

Shovel & Rope’s kid-friendly latest covers album has its heart in the right place, but is an absolute sonic disaster.

Americana duo Shovels & Rope have settled into a predictable pattern with their album releases, alternating between new studio projects and entries in their Busted Jukebox series of covers albums. After 2019’s By Blood, they were due for another Jukebox entry; the first two albums in the series were delightful efforts, showcasing the duo’s playful approach to genre and providing a counterpoint to the general stuffiness of the current Americana landscape. That playfulness officially crosses a line of good taste on the new Busted Jukebox Volume 3, dubbed Busted Juicebox. For this project, Shovels & Rope have enlisted an impressive roster of collaborators, every one of whom should’ve known better, to cover a series of children’s or otherwise kid-friendly songs. The impulse behind the project is actually very easy to endorse. Particularly following a year that found most children confined to their homes without access to in-person socialization opportunities and enduring challenges with remote learning requirements, it’s impossible to fault Shovels & Rope for wanting to do something that might bring a bit of levity and joy to kids.

The lead single from their 2016 album, Little Seeds, was the breakneck “Botched Execution,” and that’s really the most apt descriptor for Busted Juicebox v3: however kind their intentions may have been, Shovels & Rope actively play against their strengths here, managing to come up with songs that are either unbearably twee or just outright dull, over roughshod production that would be off-putting to most young listeners. Children weaned on the antiseptic sounds of Daniel Tiger or Mickey Mouse Clubhouse aren’t likely to be drawn in by a rendition of “The Ants Go Marching” that’s punctuated by slightly out-of-tune guitar chords or by the cacophonous vocal layering between Shovels & Rope and Deer Tick on a just-awful cover of “Cry Baby,” and it’s unclear why any adult listener would be seeking out a rendition of “Hush Little Baby.” Sure, The War And Treaty’s Tanya Blount sings the fire out of “Tomorrow” (yes, the showtune from Annie) because of course she does, but to what end? Even the better tracks — John Paul White doesn’t completely embarrass himself on “What a Wonderful World” — still emerge as mere novelty recordings. The weaker efforts, particularly “Everybody Hurts” with T. Hardy Morris and a dreadful “In My Room” with Sharon Van Etten, strike a generally miserabilist tone that seems at odds with the album’s overall intentions. Shovels & Rope have demonstrated that they’re more capable than most when it comes to recording covers albums with purpose and vision, but Busted Juicebox Vol 3 is a career nadir that never should’ve made it all the way to the recording studio.

Published as part of Album Roundup — February 2021 | Part 3.