Reflecting on The Disarmers previous record, Sidelong, it is near impossible for this reviewer to hear train beat and tremolo without immediately conjuring the Old 97s, and if this is the jump off, think of Sarah Shook as Rhett Miller’s badass younger cousin.
Sidelong, re-released on Bloodshot in 2017, was originally recorded and self released in 2015, and the stretch between recordings has afforded the group time to reflect on the debut to produce a noticeably more mature second album. All the similar cow-punk and rockabilly references still exist here, but there is a certain patience demonstrated in the songs this time round. The production on Years is slicker yet the rough-around-the-edges charm remains. The arrangements are less chaotic, allowing space for each instrument to move and breathe, including Sarah’s distinct, genuinely warm and life-lived gravelly tone – not unlike the voice of Lucinda Williams.
The album begins with ‘Good As Gold’, a breakup song of sorts that doesn’t mince words as Shook sings “I’m afraid of losing, not afraid of losing you,” speaking to a previous destructive, relationship. ‘Lesson’ pulls the listener in with a traditional feel and chord progression but breaks away into the chorus with an original thumping hook “I’m gonna learn me my lesson and move on,” which is a trick consistent throughout Years. Shook is also not at all coy with her wide open pansexuality and with this, plays on stereotypical gender roles seamlessly. The chorus of ‘Bottle Never Lets Me Down’ moans “I keep the bottle close at hand, it’s the only thing left I got that can, make me feel the man I used to be,” and while themes of self loathing, broken homes, hearts and booze are more or less definitive characteristics of country music, they are not necessarily open to the narration of women. Shook narrates these themes so well that it’s easy to miss and with the bat-winged doors of the old boys club currently propped open by the plethora of other outstanding female writers, it really does beg the question of why we still feel the need to brand music by gender at all.
Ultimately, Shook and her band have made a fantastic sounding sophomore record allowing her the ability to bring progressive ideals, social politics and values to a guarded table and the prospect of fans on the right scratching their heads is exciting. Even the cover art challenges the genre’s status quo and is sure to confuse new listeners, which by the way is not a negative. Too much of the same is boring, Years and Sarah Shook are anything but.