Vintage Album Review – Sarah Shook & The Devil’s “Seven”

Before the debut album from Sarah Shook and the Disarmers called Sidelong, before Sarah was picked up by Bloodshot Records who later reissued Sidelong in 2017, and then released Sarah’s 2018 record Years that won the Saving Country Music Album of the Year, she was simply a bartender in North Carolina with a smoldering ambition to be an unknown dark country singer and songwriter haunting local dive bars. It’s from this desire and some nudging from musician friends that “Sarah Shook and The Devil” emerged in 2012 with a 7-song EP.

Recently reissued by Bloodshot Records on vinyl for the first time, Seven is Sarah’s slightly nascent, but surprisingly powerful and well-performed prototype for what would blossom into one of the most compelling underground talents of our time. A quartet that included Sarah’s current guitarist Eric Peterson and lap steel player Phil Sullivan, as well as upright bassist Jon Baughman, The Devil began playing bar gigs around North Carolina, eventually catching the ear of audio engineer Ian Schreier, who decided he wanted to give the outfit a shot in the studio.

Recorded all in only one day at Manifold Recording in Pittsboro, NC, Seven is much more than a collection of demo tracks. It may capture Sarah Shook in a formative state, but her smoky and haunting voice, and the warbles and yodels and moans that only she can pull off are all there and deftly utilized as she probes her vocal range and reigns in her control, discovering along with the audience her capabilities as a country vocalist, with that undeniable pain and darkness that makes her sound so enthralling bubbling to the surface. If nothing else, Seven is worth the listen just to hear more instances of Sarah Shook singing in studio, no matter the context.

If we’re being honest, some of the writing is where Seven comes across as a little undercooked, and Shook would be the first to fess up to that. But this is to be expected from an artist still discovering how best to articulate the thoughts from her troubled mind through song. Still the themes, the approach, the punk attitude and vision, and the smart use of dark melodies that makes Sarah Shook unique in country music are all there in raw expressions, along with lines and phrases that still deliver. An unpolished Sarah Shook is still so much more interesting and compelling than the super polished pop country of today.

And make no mistake, this is 100% country music, even if the growl and grit and dark mood is not what you often expect from a country record. Seven is even more rootsy and woody than Sarah’s later works, forgoing drums for the upright bass to drive the beat. Sarah and Seven are also distinctly underground, meaning it comes with an attitude many other players are too afraid to bring to the music, from the murderous “Shotgun Betty,” to the androgynous “Follow Me Home.”

And what really stands out beyond Sarah herself and the great partnership that has now been forged with her guitarist Eric Peterson is some of the tones and inflections lap steel player Phil Sullivan brings to this record. From moments that remind you of the stand up steel of the Hank Williams era, and others that remind you of the instrument’s Polynesian origination point, Sullivan puts on a clinic for the lap steel’s capabilities in the right hands, while creating an additional cool factor for these recordings.

The chemistry for Seven worked so well, when Sarah started the Disarmers years later, Eric Peterson and Phill Sullivan would make the migration, as would the producer/engineer of the album, Ian Schreier, who went on to produce Sarah’s Sidelong and Years as well.

Seven may not be Sarah Shook’s best work, but it’s a work from Sarah Shook, which means it still delivers a strong value only Sarah’s unique style and vision for country music can articulate. And for thirsty ears looking for more of her unique approach, Seven is very welcome and worthy of warm-regarded.

1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)

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