Like many of the records by stronger artists on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records—Sarah Shook and her band are quickly joining those ranks—Yearsis steeped in country history even as it coats the past with bar-band rabble-rousing. Shook’s personality towers above all. Her vocal howl and searing lyrics, which arrive with a punk-rock bite and honky-tonk stomp, enable the album to transcend its influences.
Heartache. Frustration. Anger. Regular ol’ exhaustion with people. The key to the album’s success is just how versatile the whole work feels. Its sleeves-up attitude, pedal-steel-guitar strut, and roots-rock frankness operate as a cure-all to any of the aforementioned emotions. Witness “New Ways to Fail” on which Shook sings, “Well the door is over there, if I may speak with perfect candor,” before adding, “You’re welcome to walk through it at any old time that you fancy.” It takes confidence to deliver fury with such casual politeness.
Shook’s no-nonsense vocals and her backing band’s rough-around-the-edges toughness deliver Americana with plenty of bitterness. What’s more, her ability to write from female and male perspectives creates a sense of trading blows. The back-and-forth relationship drama makes Years a great fit for a reboot of The War of the Roses—only without the original’s upper-class trappings.
Arriving seemingly out of nowhere with her 2017 debut Sidelong, North Carolina via New York singer Sarah Shook presented a stirring mix of punk rock gone country. She immediately joined the likes of Lydia Loveless, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and Nikki Lane: Young, talented artists currently providing a swift kick in the shins to the sound of mainstream Nashville.
Years lassos in the recklessness, but the retreat doesn’t make it any less compelling. That much is clear from opening “Good as Gold,” with Shook doing her best to tame her bold, harsh, and unpredictable voice as she slams the door in the face of a lover. A stern and clear guitar contrasts with a mournful pedal steel, and the song evolves as a battle between strength and empathy. The former wins, as evidenced by Shook’s cold assurances of “you’ll be just fine” after she finally walks away.
The versatility of her backing musicians, the Disarmers, deserves equal acclaim. The drunk kiss-off “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down” possesses a bluesy backbone even as Shook sings it as if she’s fronting a swing band, letting the upright bass provide welcome sway. Eric Pederson’s get-out-of-town guitar urgency fuels “What it Takes” while Phil Sullivan’s lap steel adds gasoline to the fire.
The band gets spritely on “Lesson” while “Heartache in Hell” conjures last-call balladry. Even when the pace slows, Yearscarries with it a sense of impulsiveness. The latter is all courtesy of Shook, who lets her voice crack as she elongates phrases and twist words into knots, challenging the Disarmers to follow her lead. And they do. The group doesn’t support so much as shadow her so that the songs feel like wild, living entities.
Bloodshot Records’ 180-gram pressing is relatively clean, with the only audible pops in the grooves between the individual tracks. It also sounds fairly good for an indie album, with Shook’s voice coming across with pleasing clarity and balance. Instrumental separation, pacing, and soundstage width also deserve high marks. The low end, however, demands the listener fill in the gaps, with the bass seemingly lurking behind a corner. The real nitpick pertains to the uninspired packing: A thin, graphically plain cardboard sleeve with nothing but the LP and its outer sleeve inside. Don’t expect any photos, extended credits, or lyrics—you won’t find any.
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