US - Pennsylvania - Full Moon 219 - 07/12/14
Strand of Oaks
Strand of Oaks is the artist moniker for one Timothy Showalter, and HEAL is his fourth full album, following 2012's Dark Shores (Dead Oceans). Strand of Oaks' pre-history is really something: "In 2003, Tim Showalter's house burned down, his fiancée left him, and he resorted to writing songs on an acoustic guitar while living on park benches in suburban Philadelphia. Those events informed the entirety of his arresting debut, Leave Ruin (2009), an album about loss and brokenness and lack of faith. But as affecting as it was, Showalter is leery of being stuck in the past. After all, the first word of that record's title is 'leave', and one of the first thing he asked when he was contacted for an interview some years ago was, 'Can we kind of re-do my bio? I don't want to keep being the sad sack whose house burned down'." Well, this was a few years ago. Since then Showalter
(an Indiana native) has been happily married and has comfortably settled (in Philadelphia). His happy-sad music has this healing effect.
With HEAL he dives back into both orchestral, dreamy synth colours and tints of the late 1980s (think a silly blend of New Order and The Cure) as well as more grandiose rock-band
arrangements. However, you will also find hints from a musical palate counting indie rock as well as heartfelt, emotional American singer-songwriter stuff. With HEAL, Showalter aimed
for something bigger: "When it came time for Heal, I was like, life is too fucking short to make another folk record. Basically 15-year-old
me, this would have been the first record he would have liked. I was like, 'I want these songs to echo in the halls of Pompeii.'..." (to grantland.com) Where his first album, Leave
Ruin has been described as being 'stark and autobiographical', his second record, Pope Killdragon (2010) is said to be a 'wild and fantastical' kind (featuring
'laser-beam synthesizers and one bona fide stoner metal track'). Last year's Darker Shores EP collected rough and vital demos recorded
in advance of Dark Shores, which (according to Showalter himself) should have had the rock-band arrangements of (or to sound like) HEAL, but that he lost his nerve to do so.
Well, now he has made HEAL. He has reached for something grander.
Album opener "Goschen '97" is featuring J. Mascis (yes, the one and only, of Dinosaur Jr fame) on guitar, and it is a smashing piece of bursting, punchy indie rock. Plain and simple, and
catchy as hell. It was released as the album's first single back in April, and J's guitar work is stunning. And, yes, of course it is trademark and signature J-work. With Showalter recalling
basement teen-year waves of nostalgia, with dreams and memories from the pubertal age (Smashing Pumpkins, youthful "sins", explorations, etc.): 'I
was rotting in the basement / Buying Casios with my friend / Then I found my dad's old tape machine / Thats where the magic began... / Singing Pumpkins in the mirror / Porn and menthols under
my bed/ Before I was fat drunk and mean / Everything still lied ahead...' Neat. Both the title track and "Same Emotions" has got the soft-punchy synth vibe, almost flirting with banality,
giving the tracks some odd and twisted charm. The album's second single, "Shut In" was put out in May, and this song brings Strand of Oaks into some straighter 'Americana' rock style song-writing
terrain, not far from, uh, even Springsteen. Pitchfork mentioned John Mellencamp, maybe as a possible JM - as a source of inspiration for the key track, the long-stretched, epic and majestic,
and a bit Neil Young-ish song "JM". Well, J Mascis could be another 'JM'. As could the late (he died last year) Jason Molina (also known from his projects Songs: Ohia, and Magnolia Electric
Co.). Molina was one of Showalter's song-writing heroes. Another 'JM' is maybe the more obscure Jordaan Mason (from Canadian, now disbanded, gay indie rock band Jordaan Mason & the Horse
Museum - check out their highly interesting 2009 album, Divorce Lawyers I Shaved My Head), or, hey, even Jeff Mangum...? Hmm, it is just me being carried away here, for sure. I think
Molina is the better guess (Molina faded out, aged 39, in Indianapolis, Indiana, in March 2013). Anyway, "JM" is a massive and touching piece of music. And, It's another track bringing Showalter
back on the (auto)biographical lyrical track: 'I was an Indiana kid, gettin no one in my bed / I had your sweet tunes to play / I was staring at the
map, feeling fire in my head / I had your sweet tunes to play / I was mean to my dad, cause I was mean to myself / I had your sweet tunes to play / Stealing smokes in my car, with the windows
way down / I had your sweet tunes to play...' It is like a slow road movie music jam. Strand of Oaks' music is maybe not that far off from the epic, dreamy pop-rock of fellow
Philadelphians the War on Drugs, but I find Showalter's song-writing much more to the point than (War on Drug's) Adam Granduciel's songs.
Both "Plymouth" and "Woke Up To The Light" are songs pushing and pulling this album up the ladder of strongness and elegance. I guess I prefer Strand of Oaks more when they, well, he treads
a little lighter with the vintage synth stash, and steps into the more 'straight-forward' singer-songwriter territory. Not that this is straightforward music in any case. Showalter's songs
are rich, full of emotions and loaded with sensitive tricks and turns. Like with the closing, piano-driven "Wait For Love", which has this underlying synth-pulse, and the love-tinged "Mirage
Year", being another smashing song steering this album into becoming a modern classic. Its mid-song vocal scream crescendo, gliding into the guitar solo, makes the hair on the back of your
neck stand up. Amazing stuff! Excellent song-writing, perfectly arranged, elegantly played and performed. One of the albums of the year! Most definitely.
Let's end this review with another quote from Showalter: "This record is me standing on a cliff with, like, this thunderstorm of darkness and bad experiences. I could either jump off the cliff and give in or I could just put both middle fingers up in the air and be like, 'Fuck you! I am gonna fight you. You are not gonna destroy me.'" (to grantland.com)
Copyright © 2014 Håvard Oppøyen