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Sarah Shook Aims For Broader Appeal on “Nightroamer”

By Chris Treacy

On their prior two releases for the now-defunct Bloodshot label, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers lived up to their name, creating a beguiling mix of humid honky-tonk with cow-punk accents. Shook’s openly bisexual and non-binary identification, coupled with a penchant for dark autobiographical tales, set the band apart, magically referencing a great many influences while sounding quite unlike anything else.

For the new Nightroamer, out this week on Nashville-based Thirty Tigers after some significant delays brought by COVID and the dissolution of their former label, the North Carolina quintet sounds as if it’s looking to make inroads to a wider audience.

Shook wrote the lyrics to the new songs in 2018 and 2019, focusing on the inner struggle for balance between self-love and romantic love—it often seems we need to sacrifice one to achieve some semblance of the other. These often dark vignettes are delivered with their signature clipped wording and economical singing to match, which is mighty refreshing when juxtaposed with mainstream country’s current preferences for sentence-packing and vocal showboating. And the unflinching honesty in Shook’s writing flies in the face of the commercial preference for tales of trucks and tallboys, cementing the band’s aura as a group of outlier heroes.

True to form, Shook spends much of Nightroamer choking down unpalatable truths like bitter shots of cheap tequila. Openers “Somebody Else” and “Been Lovin’ You Too Long” collectively set a tone of reckoning as Shook wrestles with destructive patterns. In the former, they realize they’re just a victim-variable in an abusive relationship. In the latter, propelled by Skip Edwards’ organ, they’re up against the false comfort of codependence and dysfunction. “It Doesn’t Change Anything” confronts the quicksand of depressive thinking, while “No Mistakes” finds our hero attempting to learn from prior wreckage.  


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

“If It’s Poison,” on the other hand, languidly twirls around a roadhouse barroom in a rare moment of romantic optimism, and “I Got This” soars with self-assured indie-pop, featuring a chorus that has Shook reaching to the tippy-top of their range.

The Disarmers expertly support Shook throughout with rustic, rootsy riffs, tempering punchy rockers with Phil Sullivan’s pedal steel and occasionally approaching Appalachian tones with Shook’s thick drawl coming through their idiosyncratic crooning. Pete Anderson’s production is refined, which is mostly fine and well. With production credits as disparate as Roy Orbison, Meat Puppets, and Erasure—not to mention nearly all of Dwight Yoakam’s catalogue—Anderson seems like a perfect choice to help the band engage a larger crowd. His production sands down the band’s edges, allowing for a sharper focus that’s flattering without completely dimming the Disarmer’s punky spirit.

If there’s a misstep in Anderson’s direction, it’s the increased use of pitch control on Shook’s voice, which is apparent throughout all of Nightroamer‘s 10 tracks. And she’s certainly not alone. Auto-tune is the norm, not the exception, and punk-pop bands like Green Day and Blink 182 found wild commercial success in taking punk’s ragged glory and fitting it into a flattering bodysuit of tunefully robotic singing. The rhythmic punch remained, as did much of the attitude, but the delivery system shifted. We’ve never looked back.

Let’s face it, there’s something about precision-tuned singing that we can’t seem to resist. But Sarah Shook’s delightfully imperfect voice has always been an asset to the Disarmers—a reedy, disquieting shudder that conveys a degree of plain-faced, scrappy realness seldom found…even in Americana. It remains part of their connection to the underground. Paving over it may clear a path to more listeners, but at what cost?

In Nightroamer‘s title track, Shook sings, “I was made to be a loner/So let the night swallow me.” On the contrary, new listeners await.