I’m not sure what more I can add to the Greek chorus of praise Strand of Oaks’ has been receiving regarding their new album HEAL. In fact, I might make things worse throwing in my two cents. But hey, that’s what I do.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Strand of Oaks before I heard the blazing track “Goshen ’97”. It’s not that I didn’t like Tim Showalter’s music. Not at all. It’s just that it’s hard for me to really fall for singer/songwriter stuff that is mainly a guy or gal and an acoustic guitar. I get so distracted listening to the simplicity. I always find myself wishing there was some piano, or an interesting drum part thrown in. Analog synth hovering above the mix? Yes please. But still, I had a friend tell me I should check out Strand of Oaks; in particular the album Pope Killdragon. I did listen to it and I quite liked it. But something happened(I walked away from my computer; I slept; I drank one too many Old Styles;) and I’d forgotten about Timothy Showalter’s Strand of Oaks.
One thing, however, had stayed with me during that one listen; and that was that Tim Showalter was from Goshen, IN. That’s only about 25 miles north of my stomping grounds. I was born at Goshen Hospital. I used to go to the Concord Mall when I was a teenager and buy cassettes at Super Sounds. We’d occasionally chow down at MCL Cafeteria. I used to go to Ox Bow Park with my grandparents on Sundays for picnic lunches. I knew this place very well and this guy I was listening to online grew up there. There was this weird Midwest/Michiana connection. Well fast forward to a couple months ago when I heard “Goshen ’97” online and was blown away. Holy shit, that sounds like J. Mascis shredding over my new favorite summer jam! Then you listen to the lyrics and it’s this guy talking about growing up f’d up and loving music. It’s an anthem for the disgruntled and disenfranchised youth of America. “Singing Pumpkins in the mirror/porn and menthols under my bed”, “I was lonely, but I was having fun” he sings triumphantly before pleading in the chorus “I don’t wanna start all over again.” It wasn’t just a song about misspent youth, listening to 90s alternative music, smoking, and getting f’d up. It was a song about the adult version of that Midwest kid looking back with nostalgia because he’s emotionally in a place where anything is better than where’ he’s at. This song was the most honest, sadsack anthem I’d ever heard.
I immediately preordered Strand of Oaks HEAL(it was preordained by the Gods.) To my surprise “Goshen ’97” wasn’t a fluke. Every song is this massive load of emotional vitriol; a guy consumed by his wrongs and wrongs done to him but not inclined to be destroyed by them. In my eyes the very essence of great art is the ability of the artist to take the shit life serves up on a lousy platter and turn it into something beautiful. Jarring sometimes, but beautiful nonetheless. Tim Showalter has done that with HEAL. The rocker that opens this album is followed up by some heavy synth-filled songs that make me think of one of my other favorite albums of the year, The War on Drugs’ Lost In The Dream. Big, overblown electronic drums blare through the speakers as Juno synths pulsate clearing the way for Showalter to open his chest and bleed. “HEAL”, “Same Emotions”, and “Shut In”, well pretty much all of side A pulsate like a mix of New Order, Depeche Mode, and The Sisters of Mercy all the while baring his soul, regardless of how painful it may be. “JM” is an ode to Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia and The Magnola Electric Co. Molina is an artist I never particularly got into, although I know he was a favorite of many, including Showalter. His song channels Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the overblown, fuzzed-out guitar and even channels a bit of Molina’s own “Farewell Transmission”. It’s a fitting tribute and a hell of a damn song. “Plymouth” also brings Adam Granduciel’s The War on Drugs to mind, but with Showalter’s knack for nuanced storytelling. “Mirage Year”, well, it’s a gut-wrenching personal account of Showalter’s personal struggles. Much has been said of Tim Showalter and his wife and the struggles they’ve gone through. Where one artist may have been rather ugly in recounting the painful transgressions of a hurting relationship, Strand of Oaks is brutally honest but never ugly. Singing like the song’s a therapy session with the universe. Never hurtful, just hurt. I’m sure he’s still hurt and will hurt for a long time.
I don’t know. This is a lot of what many have written about HEAL, but I felt I wanted to say my peace. This is an exquisite record. A truly honest, rocking, and emotional rock and roll record. You need to hear it. Now.
And Tim, if you ever visit your old stomping grounds, maybe we could go digging for vinyl at Ignition Music, drink a 12 pack, and go shoot some pool up in Elkhart. Just throwing it out there.