February 4, 2018
By Brian Tucker
Sarah Shook recently ran off a panic attack by attending a sold-out basement punk show in Brooklyn by Austin, Texas band Glue. It left an impression – she didn’t know anyone there, got a concussion, and described it as “killer good.”
“I don’t like art or music that is affected. I like real shit,” Shook said. “And I think vapid, shallow people make vapid, shallow art. And deep tortured people make art that is timeless and indomitable.”
Well said. The Chapel Hill, N.C. singer-musician’s new album Sidelong, out via Bloodshot Records, backs it up. Shook’s music is genuine and timeless. It isn’t punk, but the fangs of it lurk around the corner on several songs. In 2013 she formed The Disarmers, after years of performing with previous drum-less act Sarah Shook & The Devil.
“In essence, I wanted to take what we were doing in The Devil and turn it up to 11 in every capacity. I think its working.”
They’re breathing new life into classic country, injecting it with strong vocals, outlaw spirit, sharp guitar work, and frank lyricism. Shook got started early by writing incessantly – journals, short stories, poems, songs (“reading books, climbing trees, and writing stuff, that’s what was up”).
It’s paid off with solid storytelling and stinging lyrics. On “The Nail” Shook sings, “I can’t decide which one of us will be the nail in this here coffin,” and on “Heal Me” things are graver – “There’s a hole in my heart ain’t nothing here can fill, but I just keep thinking surely the whiskey will.”
Alcohol is a recurring element in the songwriting and whose purpose is not bravado. Song to song it’s a looming figure, whether as band aid, crutch, or friend. But for all the stark and gritty imagery shared it remains an achingly beautiful album where Shook’s vocals bend words as they hurt, confess, and spit venom.
“Honesty is everything. I don’t mind being honest with my fans because I don’t know how else to do it. Liquor is for everything else,” Shook said. “I think this album gives a lot of hope, and heart, to a lot of hurting people and that’s all I could ever possibly ask for as an artist.”
What resonates is the relatable – the losing or letting go of someone, the mistakes, the bad relationships done in by bad habits. And that alcohol, for better and worse, is there to grease the wheels of living even as the plan to “dry out tomorrow” is promised on barn-burner “Misery Without Company.” Sidelong, for all its amusement and hard edge emotion is like a low cost alternative to seeing a shrink, a reminder we’re all dancing and singing along to shared disruption.
Where the hole-in-her-heart and doing wrong of a great song like “Heal Me” is about seeking cures, title track “Sidelong” is about invisibility and standing firm. An album highlight (with Crazy Horse inflamed guitar work), it really sounds like another band, think Heartless Bastards or Wye Oak. Shook lays it bare here, as a “lost and lonesome face” in a bar and a searing chorus of “I don’t need to someone to set my world on fire, I’d rather die all alone than settle for a liar.”
“I was stuck in a pretty rough relationship at the time. Escapism in the form of solitude and anonymity with the possibility of a better deal was a warm and welcome thought. My subconscious was obviously screaming at me to (get out).”
Shook and her band made an album that’s a heart punch of ragged country and it shines by staying restless, on both rousing and somber numbers. Before entering the studio Shook wrote the verses, bridge, chorus, chord progressions, the lyrics, and the melodies, even some guitar riffs.
“Once all that stuff is completed, I bring the song to the band and from there we play with the arrangement, intro, outro, where we want the solos. I loosely arrange the songs and the final product is the result of collaboration with my band mates.”
The western tinged “No Name” is shadowed with punk energy driving it front to finish. The energy isn’t too far from home. Shook says one of she and her young son’s favorite things is .blasting Rage Against The Machine on the drive to school in the mornings. It seems she’s got the best of both worlds, being a mom and being an artist.
“Some thrive on touring, some struggle with it. I do like our down times when I can hang out with my kid, we always have a blast. I also love being on tour. It’s weird. I like weird. Weird is my kind of thing.”