Strand of Oaks: The Best of What's Next

Music Features Strand of Oaks
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I tell Timothy Showalter that his newest album is like the happiest scar we’ve ever heard. He responds quite enthusiastically that we, in fact, got it right. HEAL, his fourth full-length under the moniker Strand Of Oaks, follows the Philly-based singer/songwriter on a 15-year reconnaissance mission with 10 songs raking out all the baggage, both emotional and psychological, that had cluttered up his life since the pure and naïve teenage-days, those first eureka-moments that put him on the path to music.

“I was almost afraid that no one would relate to [HEAL],” Showalter admits.

There will be a refreshing sort of disorientation for Strand Of Oaks fans coming to HEAL, as Showalter shifts to a fuller, more rock-oriented song that employs driving rhythms and even some catchy hooks from some sleek synthesizers—a notable departure from his previous work’s more cloudy, experimental folk aesthetic. While the music shifts from brood to burst, the lyrics are the most frank (and sometimes quite stark) that he’s ever written. The melodies are dazzling, the choruses are catchy, but there are bits where the dude’s clearly beating himself up.

Still, the soundtrack of one’s soul being bared to the more brutal of truths doesn’t have to be a downer— HEAL it turns out, is actually quite uplifting.

“Shut In” punches in with drums as big as The National or Band Of Horses ever brought and with guitars as artfully twanged as any Grizzly Bear or War on Drugs jam, but then his middle-registered voice, arching poignantly high into a nearly raspy bleat, soars over a fiery solo. “I lose my faith in people/why even take the time?/You’ve got your problems I’ve got mine.” Oh, but then the dueling guitars start charging along with the tumbling drums building into the chorus: “It’s not as bad as it seems/We try/in our own way/to get better…”

Showalter says he included that line because he was worried whether such a personal record, with autobiographical snapshots of the dirty mags under his 15-year-old self’s bed and depictions of his own troubled relationships, could translate to anyone else. “Like this was way too much me. But that last line of “Shut In” is almost me saying: ‘Frankly, I don’t give a fuck how you interpret it!’ You might not care and I don’t care if you don’t care…I need to do this.”

“In a weird way,” Showalter says, “I felt like this could be much more relatable than any metaphor. I could have made a much more vibe-oriented record with the same lyrics, here. But, no, I removed a lot of reverb and stuff and made there be no barrier between what I was singing and playing. I want it to be almost uncomfortably loud.”

It’s not a record for a quiet, pensive coffee shop, he admits. Put on HEAL and you might feel like: “Oh, man…this is something I should jog to and kinda…figure something out,” while listening.

On 2012’s Dark Shores, Showalter’s explored a purposefully abstract concept that materialized his melancholy into post-apocalyptic/sci-fi tropes that proved to be, of course, quite sublime (in a dark and misty sort of way) but ultimately withdrawn, solitary, introverted. It was escapist, in a way—but the singer was escaping you.

Now, HEAL is rocking. More than rocking, in fact, as Strand Of Oaks label-mate J Mascis (i.e., indie-guitar god from Dinosaur Jr.) kicked up the lead single with his signature fret-blurring solos. Still, on songs like “JM,” a seven minute ballad that proves to be one of the most moving moments of the record, a quiet guitar’s sigh and a traipsing piano accompany his whispering voice until a pedal-stoked guitar comes along and blows the damn windows in.

When I tell Showalter that it actually sounds like the guitar could be grimacing as it growls that solo, he once again concurs. “The guitar solos on these songs are not just guitar solos, they’re part of the catharsis of the record. They’re part of the scream therapy of it all. I might say something sad, lyrically, but then I feel like there’s this celebration of the guitar, just rocking out after it that juxtaposes. It’s a juxtaposition of introspective lyrics and this…well…I don’t think you can get any more extroverted than a guitar solo. This is as bold as I can be right now.”

I ask him to elaborate on that “scream-therapy” aspect of the record. “I know it sounds crazy, but I want people to feel better after they’re done with this. Think of it like a mild Ayahuasca trip. I mean, I’ve never done one, but, oh my god—just a feeling like that where you went through the valley of death and then came out. Like: ‘Oh, well, here it is! Phew!’ That’s why I wanted to close the record with a big bombastic, kinda upbeat song. I’m hopeful!”

“Wait For Love,” HEAL’s closer starts with the sparse, echoing chime of a piano but builds, quickly, with cinematic synths rising like ultraviolet sunlight over the dark, dewy horizon of the whole album: “You’ll find meaning in your life and then you’ll complicate it even more / Wait for love.” The drums begin to run, a bass arches in but there’s little to no guitar, it’s the one time for just Showalter’s splendid voice to shine. “I’m giving up getting over you” is a lyric repeated over the bridge before the dreamy synths loop us all the way out into the final surging sigh of this therapy.

“Tim, why can’t you acknowledge yourself, here?” he recalls asking himself after Dark Shores. “I can see all the writing on the wall, now. Like, ‘It’s gonna fall apart soon dude, if you keep hiding this from yourself. It’s not gonna go well!’ And…then, it didn’t go well and then HEAL came. That closer is when the narrator flips places; it’s me talking to me as a 15 year old on “Goshen ’97.”

“This is the first time I feel settled after a record. I’m not cured; I don’t think anybody gets cured. But I’m onto the process of acknowledging the bad parts, giving them a name, once you do that you can move forward. I’m hopeful; I just think (HEAL)’s what I’ve been waiting for.”

So have we, Tim.