Album Review – Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – “Nightroamer”

photo: Chad Cochran

The emboldened roar of punk country that became the initial catalyst for the independent country revolution we’re enjoying the fruits of today feels very much like a distant whimper here in 2022. Bloodshot Records has officially gone defunct and been sold off. Muddy Roots is now mostly a metal fest. And Hank3 has been barely heard from for going on a decade now. Luckily, that passion to save country music was carried on by some authentic voices from Kentucky, songwriters from Oklahoma, and others from around the world, shepherding that charge into the future, and building upon it more sustainably.

But through all of the smoke and debris of the country punk implosion, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers from North Carolina soldier on, and really no worse for the wear thanks to their leader being one dedicated just as much to self-work as self-righteous indignancy at the system. Already a survivor of a severe religious upbringing that ran counter to her rambunctious tendencies, years of alcohol and excess, and the Bloodshot Records implosion, Shook and the Disarmers landed on their feet with Thirty Tigers, and are doing their part to ensure insurgent country makes its way into another decade.

Officially the third record from Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, Nightroamer is distinctly more of an indie rock or power pop-influenced album compared to Sarah’s two previous ones, but with a few strong country tracks to ground the effort in the roots as well. Sarah Shook’s powerful penchant for melody has always naturally expressed itself more in a hybrid of country as opposed to a hard country approach, so instead of fighting back or balancing that tendency, she leans into it for this album.

Nightroamer is one of those albums where it’s worth cautioning listeners to exhibit a little patience. To this set of ears, the best songs of the album are weighted towards the middle and end, while it takes multiple spins before the magic of certain songs reveals itself, especially the earlier ones. A rearranging of the track list might have been advantageous. But ultimately, ample doses of entertainment value are delivered.

For country lovers, the album is anchored by the unapologetically shit-kicking “No Mistakes,” which happens to be an apologetic pleading for forgiveness for past missteps and assurances it will never happen again, which we all know is always a hard promise to keep, whether made in real life or in a country song.

“It Doesn’t Change Anything” and “Stranger” are perfect specimens to illustrate why Sara Shook is such a valuable contributor to the country genre, and so unique to it in how she combines her exalted ear for fetching melodies usually reserved for rock and pop performers with the right measures of steel guitar and twang—all delivered in Sarah’s smoky voice that girds the sad stories and harrowing tales with strong believability.

But Nightroamer also boldly treks into the indie rock space in spurts, with Sarah’s layered vocal lines in the sugary and distinctly unrootsy “I Got This” sounding like something you might hear from Snail Mail as opposed to a country punk warrior princess. The deftness of Sarah’s hand with melody still wins you over though, even if it doesn’t fit snugly in your preconceived notions of genre.

The final two songs of the album “Believer” and “Talkin’ To Myself” carry on in this indie rock direction—the second one more pleasantly, with its exploration of neuroticism being something most all of us can relate to with the incessant worry that comes with life today. This leaves the ratio of country songs, indie rock songs, and songs that straddle both influences about even by the end of the record.

Nightroamer doesn’t feel like the world-beating effort of Sarah Shook’s last album Years, which won the Saving Country Music Album of the Year in 2018. But when you set the bar so high, it’s hard to attain such heights repeatedly, and it shouldn’t be considered a rebuke if you can’t. Still, the album comes across a little disjointed—like two albums smashed into one—and challenges the audience to calibrate their brains to two distinct styles of music that tend to work better when merged by Shook since that is her signature, as opposed to delved into exclusively.

But whether you’re a country fan, or an indie rock fan, or just a fan of good music, you will find multiple songs on Nightroamer that appeal to you. Just which ones may be different depending on the audience, while Sarah’s long time guitar player Eric Petersen, the rest of the Disarmers, and producer Pete Anderson (yes, Dwight Yoakam’s Pete Anderson), show skill in delivering music with multiple styles and influences.

8/10

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