Album Review – “Sidelong” by Sarah Shook & The Disarmers
Sometimes it takes a bad seed to make good country music. That’s just the way it is. Just how bad Sarah Shook is probably depends on your perspective, but she was born into a good Christian home and raised in a wholesome manner that taught her to do everything in virtually the exact opposite way she eventually did it. Home schooled and only exposed to worship music at an early age, Sarah rebelled when she got the chance and her first band was named “Sarah Shook & The Devil.” Sorry mom and dad, but there was something inside Sarah that had to come out, and though this isn’t devil music by any stretch, it’s certainly not scriptures.
Who knows what whims govern the exiled ghost of authentic country as it scans the fruited plain looking for souls to possess? But it found Sarah Shook in North Carolina, and her destiny was inescapable. She opens her mouth and a ghostly, smoky yodel is emitted carrying the weight of a thousand troubled and worried spirits crying out in tormented moans about heartache, trouble, and the resignation to never living up to the expectations of yourself and others.
Sidelong may find itself in a dark and troubled place much of the time, but it’s good old country music at its heart. You know, country music? That stuff they used to make before Music Row lost its everloving mind? Music that said something, and conveyed a feeling that bred a sense of commiseration and shared grief with the audience resulting in a strange healing? Yeah, that stuff. Twangy, aching, and true—that’s what you find on Sidelong in ample portions, and not cut with “sensibilities” or contemporized for the modern ear.
Helping Sarah along the way are The Disarmers, which have a bit of an interesting story themselves. Guitarist Eric Peterson is a holdover from Sarah’s previous band, and the pile driver to getting this album recorded and out to the world. Then behind the drum kit is none other than throwback country artist John Howie Jr., formerly the frontman of the Two Dollar Pistols, and an accomplished solo singer and songwriter himself. Jason Hendrick stands behind the bass fiddle, and together they fool everyone into thinking they know what they’re doing by executing tight and authentic arrangements to Sarah Shook’s original compositions.
Sidelong has some really serious haymakers on it folks. The first song “Keep The Home Fires Burnin'” immediately lets you know that the spirit of this album is one of uncompromising country leanings, and the attention to melody paid by guitarist Eric Peterson and embodied in the arrangement make this an excellent song to start an album with. Then the next song in called “The Nail” let’s you know this will be an album with some piss and attitude on it, so be forewarned.
The title track “Sidelong” is arguably the album’s best with such incredible heart-wrenching emotion strained out through Sarah’s broken yodel. Not since Dolores O’Riordan’s early Cranberries recordings have we heard a female yodel so lonesome, yet so rising in spirit. Sarah Shook resides in a slightly lower register for you average female voice, so she’s able to go to a falsetto without sounding like a screech, and her voice fails her at the most opportune times to communicate tormented emotion, similar to Emmylou Harris. And the way The Disarmers understand how to interpret “Sidelong” and fade out the ending is deserving of bravos.
The song most likely to get people’s attention is “Fuck Up” co-written with John Howie. Even if you want to hate this song, with lines like “God never makes mistakes, he just makes fuck ups,” you just can’t.
Sidelong also has a couple of tracks that sound like less than 100% effort, and even though if you listen to the message of the other songs you may feel this is to be expected, with some of the greatness captured here, there’s an elevation in expectations. “Misery Without Company” and “Solitary Confinement” could have used a little more work, and in moments slightly expose what is the best part about this album: Sarah’s voice and songwriting.What Sarah’s doing vocally is spectacular, but she still has to be careful of staying within her true voice instead of a voice she feels may fit a particular song.
You hear some similarities to Lydia Loveless with Sarah, and seeing how the subject matter is similar in spots, comparisons are probably not unfair, though Sarah’s singing feels more natural . . . most of the time.
The strong stuff on Sidelong is quite strong, and is deserved of high praise and deep consideration. Though it may seem ticky tack, I’m pulling back from the top grade of “Two Guns Way Up” for some slightly weaker tracks. But all told, Sidelong touches on something welcome to the country music ear, and makes for one excellent and compelling listen.
Two Guns Up (9/10)
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October 30, 2015 @ 9:12 am
There’s always a few bands/artists that I discover every year that keep my hope-o-meter for the, seemingly, dismal future of the art form that I love filled, and this chick hath made my cup runneth over. From the depths of my greasy strung soul, I thank you, Ms. Shook & the Disarmers!
October 30, 2015 @ 9:29 am
Seems like we always have one or two of these ‘bad’ women singers at various times:
Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Candy Slice, Chrissie Hynde. . .
All burned out, save the last one, who should have been.
Guess we shouldn’t be too surprised there are never very many of them fading away at one time.
October 30, 2015 @ 9:32 am
My first reaction was: “She won’t last long…”
November 2, 2015 @ 8:00 am
That was not my reaction when I listened, since people can write out of that self-destructive place but still be able to pull themselves out because the music is more important. But I looked up recent Youtube videos to see what she is like live, and I have to say she seems close to the edge, especially in a recent video announcing the release. Hope she can conquer the demons and keep performing, but I am afraid she may burn out.
July 2, 2016 @ 11:59 am
Check out this interview and bio. . . Sounds to me like she has her head together more than it may appear. Meanwhile, some of the harsh vocals are a reflection of the fact this album was recorded immediately after two serious bouts of laryngitis, as outlined in the article as well.
The songs are great, the band caprures what’s needed, the album deserves this wonderful review. And now, in late june 2016, Rolling Stone mag is noticing, which won’t hurt in keeping the buzz going.
October 30, 2015 @ 9:48 am
Having shared her upbringing, I can tell you that she knows that all the great prophets had a good deal of the devil in them. This is goosebump good. Thanks, Trigger, for turning me on to this.
October 30, 2015 @ 9:58 am
wow this really is great. love “Dwight Yoakam” too””
He likes to make love when he”™s smokin
And he don”™t walk around like he”™s broken
And he”™s anxious like Dwight Yoakam
! ! !
October 31, 2015 @ 1:53 pm
*sings just like Dwight Yoakum
October 30, 2015 @ 10:11 am
Funny that my first thought while listening and reading the review was “sounds reminiscent of early Lydia Loveless”, then you made the same point later in the review. Disagree with your “Sarah”™s singing feels more natural”, but to each their own.
October 30, 2015 @ 11:20 am
This is a grand slam so far — outstanding.
October 30, 2015 @ 10:46 pm
Lots of solid songwriting here. I also really like the music on “Solitary Confinement”, “Dwight Yoakam”, and “Sidelong” (though this one is more rock than country).
There are some areas where this album could use improvement, though:
1) I find it somewhat clichÃ©d that whenever a country singer wants to go “badass”, he/she instinctively chooses to mix in either a rock or a rockabilly sound. I think that one of the secrets behind Toby Keith’s fame was his ability to perform “badass” songs while maintaining a traditional country sound, such as this song from 2001:
2) While she has enough vocal range to hit the notes perfectly, she needs to work on her texture. Throughout most of this album, she sounds more like a 90s female soft-grunge singer than a country singer. There is very little vibrato in most of the songs, and whenever she tries to twang her voice, it comes off as a bit of an overwrought “shiver”. The echoing sound effect used in the production does not help either and instead makes her voice sound more artificial.
October 31, 2015 @ 12:07 am
Apart from 2-3 songs I very much agree with the soft-grunge description of the last comment. Comes across as an annoying Lydia L wannabe. But, “Fuck Up” is a keeper. 5/10.
I might be wrong on this one, but any mention of the useless cunts Cranberries really boils my piss.
October 31, 2015 @ 12:59 pm
Not advocating for The Cranberries in any way. But there are similarities in the voices, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
November 1, 2015 @ 10:01 pm
What’s wrong with the Cranberries? “Dreams” feature some of the best vocals of any major pop song in recent decades, and “Linger” is beautiful as well.
October 31, 2015 @ 5:58 am
Little mention made here of the guitar work of Eric Peterson. This guy is one of the greats, having cut his chops with the Wygals, DB’s, Flat Duo Jets, Matthew Sweet, and many more. He’s a backseat kinda guy and rarely mentioned though he should be. He disappeared from the scene for awhile and I’m glad to discover he is back. This band would not be nearly as tight without him. Thank you for turning me on to this. I need to listen much more, but my first thoughts are this is a solid artist. I really like her lyrics and voice, and I don’t find much in country music to compliment these days. Mr. Peterson, Ms. Shook (hope to meet you one day), kudos!
October 31, 2015 @ 1:01 pm
I’m a big fan of the Flat Duo Jets. Didn’t know he was part of that project, but I can definitely vouch for the tastiness of the guitar work on this album. He really listens to the song and finds a way to compliment the melody as opposed to trying to get his own licks in or try to sway the style of the song in some direction it shouldn’t go.
November 1, 2015 @ 7:17 am
Peterson and Romweber grew up together and cut their musical chops together. They had numerous high school bands, man it was crazy to see those kids playing bars and frat houses at 15,16 years old. When FDJ scored a label deal the label brought Peterson in to improve the guitar and consistency. He went on to do much more, many I’ve lost track of. I think he had some problems that took him out of play for awhile but I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear him alive and well and still badass as ever. This girl must be be the real deal if he’s chosen to back her. Hope great success finds them.
October 31, 2015 @ 8:02 am
As usual, Trigger, you have me parting with my hard-earned money after introducing me to a new, awesome artist! 🙂 Love this!
October 31, 2015 @ 2:56 pm
I can’t get past that whiskey voice. She’s too rough for my liking.
November 2, 2015 @ 6:36 am
I found a previous project, called Seven, from Sarah Shook and the Devil. Check out two excellent tracks, Damn You and Shotgun Betty. I’m interested in hearing what you think about her voice when she wasn’t having to sing over drums? Very sweet voice!
November 4, 2015 @ 1:08 am
Well, I checked out that Seven album and I much prefer what she was doing on that cd for sure. Her voice was just fine where as on this new album its like she’s intentionally trying to come off rough or such. Anyway, good call.
One thing though, what in the harry H is she doing with her voice on many of those tunes where she almost like stutters or something when she sings…..I don’t believe Ive heard anything like that before.
November 1, 2015 @ 4:41 am
November 1, 2015 @ 7:31 am
A comparison to Lydia Loveless is fair as far as the lyrics go, but I find Sarah Shook conveys much more with less words. Loveless’s lyrics are often awkward and overly wordy where Shook’s flow smoothly with precision sparseness to pack just the right lyrical gut punch. I find no comparison in sound. I like Loveless but I can only listen in small doses. Shook’s voice is much warmer, fuller, and much less shrill. I could listen to it over and over.
November 1, 2015 @ 3:57 pm
Well said – I like this much more than Loveless. Much better written, even if the themes are similar.
Bet she could do some good gospel if she wanted to! Thanks for exposing another exciting new artist Trig.
November 1, 2015 @ 8:24 am
Oh, wow, this is good. Very good. Thanks, Trigger, for the introduction to Sarah.
Bigfoot is Real (AKA Progressive Fascist Rat)
November 2, 2015 @ 7:05 am
Love her voice and attitude (seriously, I dig the whole hey-fuck-you-this-how-I-sound unpolished nature of it). One of the most intriguing female artists I’ve heard in “country” in a too long time. This is the stuff that keeps me coming back, great find.
November 2, 2015 @ 11:38 am
I’ve got to mention Phil Sullivan, the lap steel player on this record. He is phenomenal, and I’m surprised he’s been left out of the discussion.
November 2, 2015 @ 11:59 am
No slight meant to Phil Sullivan or anyone else who may have appeared on the album whatsoever. It’s a great album all around and everyone did a good job with it. Sometimes when writing a review, there’s an opening to talk about some of the band members, sometimes you don’t talk about them at all and you just focus on the songs or the singer. Everyone should be proud of this record.
November 3, 2015 @ 7:20 pm
Trig, once again you help me part with my hard earned dollars…This is becoming a habit (that’s a lie; became a habit years ago). My mind was made up by the second bar, this is real good..
November 5, 2015 @ 10:16 am
Only similarity to Lydia Loveless and Sarah is that both will likely put a cigarette out in your eyeball for asking them to discuss who they sound like.
November 5, 2015 @ 12:49 pm
She looks like Axl Rose in his yester years. actually thought it was him in the thumbnail.
Thin, broke, and dirty
November 6, 2015 @ 6:56 pm
Wow!!! Thanks Trigger for introducing me to this great album. 9/10 is a perfect rating.