Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – Years

Early on in her sophomore album, Sarah Shook offers a wry, yet revealing, personal assessment: “I need this shit like I need another hole in my head.” Framed against a straight-up honky-tonk arrangement – guitar, bass, drums, lap steel – Shook’s vocal is equal parts defiance and self-loathing as she details a scenario rapidly going south on her, a palpable, growing sense of exhaustion and “trying to make it through another day” amid a crumbling relationship for which she bears equal responsibility. Note that she didn’t say “a hole” in her head, but “another hole,” which suggests she’s been here, done this, before, but she didn’t exactly take steps not to repeat it. Even the song’s title speaks volumes: “New Ways To Fail.”

Sarah Shook is part of the new school of hard-twangin’ indie gals, which has recently seen the ascent of the likes of Margo Price and Nikki Lane. Hailing from Chapel Hill, Shook and her Disarmers describe themselves as “a country band with a sneer, a bite, and no apologies.” They stormed outta the gate a year ago this spring with their Bloodshot debut, Sidelong, which swiftly earned the thumbs-up from alt-country scene bible No Depression, the still-influential Rolling Stone, and pretty much every daily or weekly paper in towns the band performed. Years doesn’t set out to fix what ain’t broke; if anything, it’s even more country and less apologetic than its predecessor.

Armed with vocal pipes that suggest a cross between Neko Case (the resonant tunefulness) and Loretta Lynn (the unmistakable Southern-ness), Shook sets up Years’ ten songs like shot glasses on a bar and proceeds to knock ‘em all back in rapid succession. There’s strummy opening salvo “Good As Gold” which, like the above-mentioned “NWTF,” depicts a relationship in tatters (“You’re as good as gold/ And I’m as good as gone,” she coos, mock-sweetly), along with the delightfully swampy “The Bottle Never Let Me Down,” one in a seemingly endless line of Shook songs about – not to put too fine a point on this – drinking, a clear preoccupation for the songwriter, as also evidenced in the hung-over clarity displayed in the countrypolitan “Damned If I Do, I’ll Be Damned If I Don’t” (“I didn’t mean to stay out all night drinkin’/ I didn’t mean to stay up ‘til the goddam cows came home/ Please believe me, it just happened this way”).

Yet as with “New Ways To Fail” (my personal fave), Shook remains remarkably self-aware in her tunes, in a kind of Sunday-morning-comin’-down way. Closing track “Years” is instructive, finding the singer at a crossroads and “asking nature for a sign” that she’s not making the same mistakes all over again this time out. Will Shook ever find the peace, love, and lasting happiness she clearly deserves (and kinda-sorta wants, even though she knows full well that in each of those mistakes she’ll find fodder for a new song)? Tune in next time and find out, Disarmers fans. This program’s just been renewed for another season.

Sarah Shook & The Disarmers