Reviewed by Bill Tokash
Hank. Buck and Don. Jimmie, George. Ray, Dolly. Tammy. Ira and Charlie. Dwight. Gram. Ralph. Loretta. These are country artists whose soulful vocal stylings strike me viscerally in an inexplicable way. Like when I hear George Jones sing “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” and I’m overwhelmed because I can feel every ounce of his pain in each syllable and note. Or when The Louvin Brothers sing When I Stop Dreaming and the very depth of the love they are expressing is palpable. I certainly wouldn’t go to bat arguing that Sarah Shook has a vocal range or capability on par with some of the greats. But I feel every gram of her heartbreak, impatience, regret, fierce determination, and newfound independence in her voice across the ten new songs on Years, her standout second release on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records.
Some NFL scouts have a term for the intangible qualities that make a great running back elusive and hard to tackle. They’d call it Zuzu, after the magical qualities of Zuzu’s petals in It’s a Wonderful Like. I co-opt use of the term Zuzu to rank vocal stylings that have intangible, expressive qualities that belie the face value of the way an artist sings. And to me, Sarah Shook is the Barry Sanders of country vocal Zuzu right now. Her frail-yet strong, gravelly-yet clear, and sad-yet wry warble is unlike any other performer out there right now.
And on this new release, Sarah and the Disarmers back up the sheer depth of her vocal magic with strong lyrics; craft melodies that transcend the depth of the emotions being convey, and then add a whole bunch of tasty pedal steel licks throughout. This album has all the playful, tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating “ I can’t help but laugh for crying” style that great country artists have deployed over the years to hide the real pain they feel.
Side 1 starts off with Good as Gold, and New Ways to Fail: two songs that foreshadow the emerging confidence and independence Sarah seems to be feeling at this point. Soon The Bottle Never Lets Me Down kicks in, and its just dripping with disappointment. Side 2 is highlighted by Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t, which is ripe with apologetic sincerity. But then, on Heartaches in Hell, Sarah’s self-confidence seems to be slipping a bit. And then the record closes out with Years, and the best lyric yet (letting the dust collect/on my own sense of who I am). The combination of honesty and jangly, twangy riffs on this record makes it a true country throwback.
I saw Sarah Shook and the Disarmers last summer at Fitzgerald’s American Music Fest, and they dang near stole the festival for me. I am also fully ramped, ticket-wise and emotionally, to see them this Friday, May 4th at the legendary Empty Bottle in Chicago. A perfect venue for their unique blend of punk rock attitude mixed with classic county style.
Listen and buy here: https://sarahshookthedisarmers.bandcamp.com/