HEAL, Philadelphia-based mopester Timothy Showalter’s third album as Strand of Oaks, is a sonic reinvention of sorts.
By definition, mopesters are raw, damaged goods, and Showalter’s first two albums, Leave Ruin and Pope Kildragon, had their share of woebegone, poetic odes to failed romance and general malaise and despair. HEAL, however, takes it up a notch, both thematically and sonically. Showalter experienced what may have been a nervous breakdown in the fall of 2013, and he and his wife were involved in a nearly fatal head-on car collision at the end of the year. Those traumatic events prompted a round of cathartic songwriting that finds its release on HEAL. The songs are even more agonized, and more transparently autobiographical. And the delivery is decidedly noisier and more raucous. This is an album that rocks in all kinds of unexpected ways. Surprisingly, given Showalter’s rather placid musical past, that’s the music’s strongest asset.
“Goshen ’97,” the leadoff track and first single, starts off in impressively noisy fashion, with Showalter harkening back to his teenage years: a lonely, introspective kid finding solace in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a shopworn theme, but the shredding, courtesy of Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, transports the sentiments to something grand and majestic. That’s the only place Mascis appears, but his influence is pervasive on this album, and songs such as “JM,” a heartfelt tribute to the recently deceased Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co.), and the by-turns tender and disturbing “Mirage Year” are noteworthy not only for their lyrics, but because of the guitar heroics. Showalter’s a surprisingly muscular, visceral guitarist, and the slow burns on these songs are consistently bracing and invigorating. He’s obviously taken some lessons not only from Mascis, but also from Neil Young’s minimalist but soulful ethos. Drummer Steve Clements is also a consistent highlight, laying down thunderous beats throughout.
Unfortunately, the rockers fare better than the ballads, usually Showalter’s strong suit. “Woke Up in the Light,” “Plymouth” and “Wait for Love” all try to capture something of the magic of ‘80s power ballads, albeit with a Meal Loaf-on-Prozac dourness, but sink under the weight of overbearing synths and ponderous over-emoting. The digital soul of “Same Emotions” fares a little better, if only because of its infectious chorus, but it too suffers from synth overload. While all of these songs may have served as effective therapy for Showalter, they don’t necessarily make for transcendent art, and much of this material merely sounds undercooked rather than raw. More attention to the songwriting process might have helped, and the elaborately developed images and metaphors of Showalter’s earlier albums are sadly missing.
HEAL ultimately sounds like a transitional album, and as such reveals both unexpected strengths and weaknesses. Timothy Showalter may have a bright future as an indie guitar hero, basking in the ragged glory of Neil Young in his Crazy Horse mode. But one hopes that he’s worked through his most tenacious demons and that he can return to more thoughtful songwriting. Showalter impresses me as a ragged rocker, and he’s shown in the past that he can be a thoughtful, gifted songwriter. Let’s hope that next time the best elements of his work will re-introduce themselves.