From country rock to mesmeric indie.
Freed from months of pandemic restrictions Sarah Shook might have been expected to kick the doors down with even more ferocity than she did with her band The Disarmers. Particularly if her intention was to release an album of songs that says all the things she thought should have been said way back in the 1990s. ‘Cruel Liars’ is that album and Shook pulls no punches in expressing what she feels we got wrong and conveniently left unsaid, most notably mental health, non-conventional identities and accessibility.
How she articulates those themes though, does come as a surprise. Shook tackled the project from its inception to the finished article herself. Of course, she wrote the songs but Shook has also produced and engineered a new sound. Gone almost completely is The Disarmers’ country rock twang, replaced by a moody, swirling rich, indie rock vibe that gives ‘Cruel Liars’ a relentless intensity, perfect for facing up to these difficult issues. Integral to that dark, pulsating sound is Mightmare; Blake Tallent on guitar, Ash Lopez’s bass and Ethan Standard on drums. From the off this is an impressive album.
A particularly vivid example of this departure from Shook’s previous country comes in the persistent indie rock riffs of ’Enemy’, about the psychological impact of a breakup. The pointless vindictiveness that follows leading to long-term damage really disturbs Shook, “I’d rather be/ Your enemy/ Than fade away like a childhood friend”.
Those nervy chords almost propel ‘Saturn Turns’ into orbital oblivion, “Here behind the wheel I turn it on/ Broke but I got time to burn/ Turn me on” but drawing on her own experiences Shook believes in therapy and rebirth as testified in ‘Sure Thing’, “The only thing I know for sure/ Is there’s no such thing as a sure thing”. Even her voice lifts with a glimmer of hope.
The gentle ambient tones of ‘Red’ soothe in stark contrast to the dark lyric, there is little levity in this short but very powerful collection. The closest comes in ‘Easy’, a wistful muse on love’s innocence. The tempo does not let up but the electronic keys lightens the mood.
‘Cruel Liars’ is more than a solo side-project and we must hope to hear more from Sarah Shook’s Mightmare. But not at the expense of the Disarmers because Shook’s writing is so potently communicated in either country or indie rock.