Strand of Oaks - HEAL

HEAL can’t be called navel-gazing; it’s self-administered surgery.

Additional Info

7.7

ALBUM: HEAL

ARTIST: Strand of Oaks

2014

Alternative

How many great albums owe some of their success to a great origin story? The clearest example in the last decade is surely Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, whose maudlin harmonies were given weight by a compelling tale: after a terrible breakup and a terrible illness, a frustrated musician relocates to a cabin in the woods. There, he lives off of the land, heals himself, and pours his soul into a haunting masterpiece. Whether true or not, this is how the album was framed; the listener couldn’t avoid the narrative’s powerful impact. We similarly forgive Neil Young’s piercing yowl when listening to Tonight’s the Night, knowing that it was birthed in the aftermath of two deaths that affected all of the musicians involved.

So, too, goes the story of HEAL, the most recent effort from Philly by-way-of Midwest musician Timothy Showalter, who performs as Strand of Oaks. After creative stagnation and personal chaos, including a strained marriage, devastating fire, and a struggle with substance abuse, Showalter got a record deal and used it to “heal” through the unbridling of his creativity. His catharsis would be making a balls-out classic record as expansive in its sound as it was emotionally precise. And he got pretty close.

Though brutally honest, HEAL is an uneven record featuring fantastic highs and some unconvincing choices. Take the opening track, which blows the door off the barn with the tornado fingers of Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis. Unfortunately, the brilliant guest-spot is emptier above what sound like programmed drums (fairly unimaginative ones at that). If you’re going to have a guitarist that can command lighting like J. Mascis, you can do better than to accentuate his lead with the same thud-thud-thud kick that hammers mindlessly throughout the track. Just ask the man himself to get behind a kit!

Showalter is nonetheless able to effectively dovetail central theme and sound, evoking the “magic” of musical discovery he references in the opening track. We can practically see the odd origami of cassette tape liner notes unfurling in Showalter’s young grip on the cool tile of an Indiana basement: Phil Collins; Bruce Springsteen; Dire Straits. One track after another on HEAL evokes something classic yet hard to articulate, masked homages to Showalter’s canon.

In the album’s thrilling opening sequence, Showalter deftly moves between his influences, showcasing a diverse vocal skill set. He complements the dark electro vibe of title track “HEAL” with a percussive and direct performance. He goes the other way on the falsetto-fabulous “Same Emotion”, a track whose eponymous hook is blazing and infectious. The soft 8-bit synth lead fits snugly beside the other 80’s-Pop textures the record opens with.

That HEAL peaks so early in its arc is ultimately one of its great flaws. The album’s best track is its fourth, lead single “Shut In”, and features Showalter performing at his most raw. His straining, throaty voice aims for “Midwestern Boss”, in front of drums that explode with a live sound befitting the song’s grandiosity. In the background beautiful guitar leads fire in opposing tangents. When the guitar solo rips, it’s a culmination that uplifts the listener.

But just as we soar, we feel the gravity of reality yoke us downward. Showalter revels in what is more self-loathing than healing. He needs. He wallows in teenage angst. He experiences fleeting moments of alcohol-soaked peace. But when Showalter triumphantly sings “We try in our own way / to get better / even if we’re alone”, it’s with as much forbearance as acceptance; we may get better, but we are alone. The light, even when it shines, is miserly.

It can be a trudge through down-tempo tracks that take us from the record’s emotionally complex first half to its far more languorous and depressive second half. The heaviness begins to encumber a few minutes into the Songs:Ohia homage “JM”, and continues to strain through “Mirage Year”, especially when listening to the lyrically imagined infidelity of Showalter’s wife. It’s almost like he’s dumping his baggage on the listener rather than healing himself through song.

By the time the rousing, Thin Lizzy-inspired penultimate track “For Me” arrives, it’s too late; the connective thread has worn. The listener has been pummeled with too much negativity and self-loathing. We’ve listened to Showalter beat himself up, delve into the morass of his damaged relationships, call himself fat, mean, drunk, drinking, getting loaded, getting wasted. He calls himself an “abomination”, in the album’s M83-influenced closer. It may have been inspirational for Showalter to make this record, but it’s a drain to listen to.

Showalter should nevertheless be credited for how unflinchingly he looks inward. Few artists would be brave enough to so brazenly expose themselves and their flaws to their audience. It’s a commendable dedication to creative growth, as well, as Showalter was able to expand and explore new spaces and styles. There’s scarcely a single acoustic strum on HEAL. It’s an evolutionary album, and a career left-turn that recalls J. Tillman’s transformation into Father John Misty. Both artists traded in a sound that was hushed and melancholic. Whereas Misty now embodies sarcasm’s muse, Strand of Oaks’ shift has been taken an opposite course, toward ruthless self-examination. But HEAL can’t be called navel-gazing; it’s self-administered surgery. As one might expect, this doesn’t always work to the listener’s benefit—after all, it takes a particular kind to enjoy watching operations from the observation deck.

Few albums are able to balance how much they give and take while asking a lot from the listener; successful examples include Kid A and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Though this equilibrium is askew on HEAL, that should not detract from how much it really does reward the listener. It’s consistently catchy, and by the 400th time you sing, “I was livin’ in the same emotion” to yourself, even those saccharine production choices seem more like idiosyncrasies than faults. Sometimes narratives are too well-formed to pass the bullshit detector, but Showalter’s relentlessness helps shape the record’s image into something that rings true: truly desperate, truly dysfunctional, and truly wholehearted. It doesn’t feel like healing, but it feels.

“I was born in the middle, maybe too late. Everything good had been made”.

1. Goshen ’97
To delve deeper into what doesn’t work about those drums: it’s the transition from verse to chorus. It’s so dry, sapping momentum from what should be a big moment. Listen for that repetitive kick drum at 1:06. This is a crucial juncture for the song, because it should be a dive off the high cliff into the bombastic dark chorus water, and it is—but it’s a wobbly dismount. There’s no sense of building momentum, as every beat is snapped to the grid of infinite time. What the song doesn’t lack is a sense of identity. It’s immediately clear what the anthem will be, and grounds the listener in what will become the emotionally uncomfortable terrain of the record. Showalter may have been a lonely boy, but with the help of a friend like J. Mascis, even loneliness can sound like a rocking time.7.5
2. HEAL
The title track offers another sort of declaration for the listener, one of immediacy. Here the mechanistic rhythm wears the mood of “Blue Monday,” like a blanket, but it’s far rawer underneath. Yet each time the lyrics inch towards something revelatory—a why, a lesson, a moment of healing—Showalter incants a repeating phrase like “we’re painted like a warrior”. It’s a last-second turn that seems incongruous with the emotional openness of the rest of the track’s lyrics. It’s as if he’s willing to dig up everything but the poison roots. Regardless, we can ride that simple bass line all the way across damn town. It’s funky and dark, in an Italo Disco sort of way. Showalter’s stiff vocal performance in the chorus oddly avoids catchiness, which ends up being a rewarding choice in the context of the record. The monotone “heal”, sounds unattainable, something you’d say to reassure others. What do you do without answers? Well, you gotta heal.9.0
3. Same Emotions
The third and fourth tracks represent the strongest work on the album from Showalter the singer. Here we are given a taste of his range, as he carries the chorus in falsetto. It’s unexpected and beautifully executed over another driven Synth Pop track. This side of Showalter is vulnerable, wounded, seeking to escape the aloneness he accepted so comfortably on the record’s opener. As this track begins to unveil, very little on HEAL happens comfortably, but boy does it make you want to get up and shake it.9.0
4. Shut In
The other side of Showalter’s vocal brilliance is on display on the record’s standout track. Hear it in the rasp in the back of his throat when he sings “everything good had been made”. The way he strains on the word “good”, is everything. It’s Springsteen pleading “don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone”. He’s relentlessly vulnerable. The expansive percussion adds to that E-Street feel. Note the contrast in transitions between this track and “Goshen ’97”. Forty-Eight seconds in we can hear momentum accrue as the live instrumentation links together rather than hammering with recalcitrant accuracy.10.0
5. Woke Up to the Light
This track provides an effective change of pace that allows for a bit of peace amid the chaos. It’s a slow and contemplative song that stays firmly in the digital realm, nods to Phil Collins with airy synths and tom hits coming from every channel. The song transforms entirely with a choral melody that curls around the simple chords that frame the song. The song then delves deeper into noisy flourishes, creating a tense landing spot. On its own merits, this track succeeds; it loses some luster, however, as we proceed into dark, slow, sticky terrain in the record’s second half.8.0
6. JM
This widely publicized homage to late Songs:Ohia front man Jason Molina is a worthy honoring of his sound. From the first rhythmic strum of that clean, reverb-laden guitar, often Molina’s only accompaniment, we feel a strong connection to its inspiration. The song is dynamically versatile, but again there’s little sense of crescendo, which begins to become repetitive. The guitar solo comes charging in quite the same as it did in “Goshen ‘97” and “Shut In”. It’s a redundancy that further signals the slow tidal coming.7.5
7. Plymouth
This is another down tempo track has a great Wilco vibe, both in the vocal performance and the way those electronic textures blend with more conventional instrumentation like the affected piano. There’s sweetness here, the straightforward and Folk-influenced chorus offering a calm and reflective respite. Yet even here, we’re reminded that there’s something troubling beneath it all: “Took a jug of wine / just to call / see if you were home”.7.5
8. Mirage Year
This track breaks the listener just before the record ends. It’s an interminable unstitching of not-so-old wounds. Showalter’s vocals are well performed, but it’s enough at this point. Once again, a similar dynamic motif emerges—quiet-then-huge—and that range doesn’t make the track feel any less exhausting. The takeoff happens right before Showalter sings, “My hands are worth more than your blood”, referencing the man who slept with his wife. It’s an unconvincing revelation. Of course, murder is wrong. It’s fatuous to a listener who has had to hear narrative after narrative about self-sabotage. Maybe there is a realization about self-care in the next record.4.5
9. For Me
It’s a fine track that features solid guitar work and a more nuanced sense of dynamics, a sense of build to the crescendo. It also ends with some nice desert Rock highs that recall Queens of the Stone Age. Unfortunately, it’s irrelevant. After sitting through the longest five-minute song in the history of sad bastard songs, Josh Homme himself wouldn’t turn the tide.7.0
10. Wait for Love
Another gaze into that grimy mirror, but one that offers enough sonic diversity to keep it fresh. There are well-executed nods to M83 and the Microphones, the latter in the vocal performance, the former in the first four-note hook that precedes Showalter singing “wait for love”. It’s another fine track, an acceptable ending to an album whose rickety sense of self-respect creaked until the stanchions broke.7.0
Written by Ethan Milner
Ethan Milner is a writer, musician, and counselor in Eugene, Oregon. His writing on music can be found in the archives of MotorCityRocks.com, and his poetry has been published in numerous journals, most recently Eunoia Review.



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