A riotous, heartbroken, raucous darkness: Sidelong by Sarah Shook & The Disarmers is a brilliant record.
One of the great alt-country albums of all time might be Poor Little Critter on the Road by The Knitters. Back in 1985 it was a stomping highlight in what now seems a golden age of edgy, punk-inspired country-ish music.
Alongside The Knitters there was Jason & The Scorchers, Green on Red, Lone Justice, Dwight Yoakam’s debut album. The Del Fuegos. Long Ryders. The Blasters. It goes on – even Tom Petty’s Southern Accents somehow seemed to fit the vibe. For those growing up on UK Subs but secretly lovin’ the Linda Ronstadt tapes in the family car this was an amber heyday.
So, The Knitters popped to mind the minute Sidelong started – particularly in the rattling mix of Shook’s wonderful voice and the full frantic guitar twang & steel of the Disarmers. It was an instant recall. Sidelong is music to liven up the Scullery on a Friday – to turn up the bluetooth, pour out the Jack Daniels and hope for the best with the cooking. To cook stuff while drinking beer, give up halfway & go out on the town. This kind of music basically lives and breathes the booze-talking country-forget lifestyle then passes out in the carpark. Contrived it is not.
Like Critter of course, Sidelong is a lot, lot more than a good-time album. At first listen the rocking glass-chinking chaos of the music is intoxicating, but like all great country, listen over & there’s something darker, sadder and tougher on the jukebox. Title track ‘Sidelong’ for example, or the exquisitely despairing heartsickness of ‘Dwight Yoakam’ – where Shook’s baby leaves her for the big country star who “likes to make love when he’s smokin’.” There’s a plaintive fragility & wry darkness behind the hedonism that is bitterly true to life. Sarah Shook is a really superb songwriter.
Sidelong is a fantastic album – a capture-the-flag attack for a different kind of country music from the party-on Trucker Cap country-slick you see on the CMA Awards. In fact, Sarah Shook & The Disarmers make music as instantly exciting as hearing the first bars of Steve Earle’s Guitar Town on the very day it was released. Sidelong crackles with just the same inheritance of high-lonesome heartache & tight Sun-sound anarchy and attitude.
“I’ll be obliged,” she sings on the wondrous ‘Fuck Up’, “to find a single damn that I’ll be givin’.”
19 out of 10.