Sarah Shook and the Disarmers play loud and fast rock and roll with a nasty country sneer. The ten songs on their latest record Nightroamer sound as if they are forgotten 45s from some roadhouse juke joint where people come to drink, dance, and fight in the parking lot as a way of wiping the dirt off the weekly grind from their lives. The instrumentation is unpretentious, and there are no showy solos. The lyrics are written in plain language. The pleasures are inherent in the music being what it is, delivered in an austere drawl with hard strummed strings and a driving beat.
Because there is nothing flashy about Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, it’s easy to overlook just how damn good they are, and this album is. It’s the musical equivalent of getting a shot and a beer at the neighborhood bar or burgers and fries at a local non-chain restaurant. In a world of cosmopolitans and single malt scotches, fast food, and gourmet ground steak, Shook and company deliver the basics in the best sense of the word.
The songs on Nightroamer address the typical country themes of love gone wrong in various permutations. It could be Shook treated her lover wrong. Other times her lover behaved badly. Sometimes both she and her lover were at fault. Whatever the situation, Shook knows the circumstances were never as simple as they may seem on the surface. Making no mistakes can be a mistake. The devil can be one’s best friend. Talking to oneself doesn’t mean anyone’s listening, including the person holding the conversation.
These oxymoronic if simple complexities reveal the humor in unhappiness. Shook tells one lover to “Please Be a Stranger” and go away. She admits to being a “Believer” of her lies and expects the same of others. She can only be herself when she is with somebody else. And so on. The songs frequently pivot on these types of contradictions.
Shook’s voice may be the main focus (she also plays rhythm guitar), but the Disarmers propel her on. Drummer Jack Foster, in particular, picks up the pace when the vocals stop to keep the music moving with the help of bassist Aaron Oliva. Lead guitarist Eric Peterson and pedal steel play Adam Kurtz provide the atmospherics that allow Shook to cry in her beer one minute and spit out the lyrics next without losing the melody. The band can be so noisy that Shook’s words can get lost in the mix. However, the feelings she’s expressing come across loud and clear without being shrill or booming. The album was produced by Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam, k.d. Lang), known for his signature twangy guitar sound.
The album is called Nightroamer and has a late-night feel. There’s something about wandering at night that makes everything scarier and more enigmatic than it would seem in the light. That’s true for the invisible forces that surround us as well. We do not understand why we love one person instead of another, why we crave one substance over another, why we act the way we do when we know it’s not in our self-interest. It’s better not to question why but to let the mystery be. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers capture that nocturnal vibe where darkness illuminates the unknown more than hides what should be seen.