Sarah Shook and Kelly Willis are a generation apart in age, but listening to each songwriter’s new album in succession prove that breakups, kiss-offs, and immediate consolation are timeless themes in country music. Just about every jacked-up song on Shook’s recently released second album, Years (Bloodshot), addresses good-for-nothings that the singer has either dumped or deems unworthy of her time. On the opener “Good as Gold,” she admits she’s afraid of losing, then quickly adds, “Not afraid of losing you”—sticking with a lover who doesn’t treat her well would cost her much more. In “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down” she downplays her own excesses; she doesn’t need to worry about where her next sip might be, which is more than she can say about her lover’s vices: “You won’t find it running around / In the darkest corners of this town.” Shook’s band the Disarmers are fairly workmanlike, though Phil Sullivan does a great job bringing out a vocallike pathos in his pedal steel lines, but her powerful wail commands attention—if she learns to modulate her instrument with more nuance she could be unstoppable.
Willis mastered her comparably sweeter, more refined voice long ago, so each throaty exhortation hits with great impact. Her new album Back Being Blue (Premium/Thirty Tigers)—her first solo record since 2007—is less confrontational and strident than Shook’s when it comes to heartbreak, and its ten songs convey a much broader range of styles, emotions, and intensities. There’s a touch of early Elvis Costello on “Only You,” an effective evisceration of a lover who lacks any sense of accountability, while the ebullient “Modern World” is a spot-on, surprisingly succinct indictment of how contemporary mores revolve around multiple forms of exploitation. There are a few covers, including a sharp take on Rodney Crowell’s “We’ll Do It for Love Next Time” and a cheesy slog through Ronnie Light’s faux-western swing dud “I’m a Lover (Not a Fighter),” but the strongest tunes were penned by Willis, and make the record as strong as any in her career. v