4 out of 5 stars
By Nick Brothers
Timothy Showalter, who records under the moniker Strand of Oaks, is a really good, likable dude. He’s light-hearted, and he kinda looks like Jesus — but he’s denied any likeness in interviews. It’s almost funny thinking about his affable personality after listening to such a serious, heavy and passionate album.
Released June 24 by Dead Oceans, “HEAL” features a range of music from indie-rock to synthesizer new wave ballads track to track. Although Strand of Oaks’ sound varies from album to album, overall, the “band” could be compared to Jeff Buckley, Phosphorescent, Conor Oberst or Damien Rice.
It’s important to know about Showalter’s troubled history before listening to his music. In 2003, his house burned down and his fiancée left him, forcing him to have to sleep on various park benches in suburban Philadelphia. He still had an acoustic guitar, and he turned to music to face his demons. That period of his life accumulated in his first album, “Leave Ruin” in 2009.
He’s released two albums since then, and “HEAL” is a continuation in his healing process. Overall, the album demonstrates a cathartic, higher self-understanding wrapped in self-pity. While that might sound kind of heady, I should add that the music is fucking good.
The music on “HEAL” has an ability to put the listener exactly into the mindset of the song, whether it’s teenage angst, anger or vindication. The lyrics are almost embarrassing in how honest and personal they are. Showalter just about forces the listener to be empathetic to his experience. The best example of this comes during the musical break in “Mirage Year,” where the music evokes an aimless anger toward — what seems — pain itself.
The unbridled, visceral energy and the personal narrative are what make this album so strong. Most of the music comes with some muscle, but there are some beautiful ballads there, too. Synthesizers are a-plenty, but they’re matched with gritty, messy guitars that provide a great balance to the moods throughout the album.
Listening to the lyrics is like reading a diary. Showalter held nothing back. In the snyth-rocker title track you’ll find Showalter singing in an apologetic, self-loathing anger, “Take it even further back, to dark of times / When I drank too much and I took too much / I lied to all my friends about who I was / But can you listen to me? Now I’m all grown up / I spent two long years just losing my mind,” and then the repeated chorus, “You gotta heal.” It’s almost too personal, but damn, is it endearing.
When asked why he named the album “HEAL” in a recent interview, he explained that this album was still a part of his healing process.
“It’s heal in all capital letters. It’s not a soft heal, it’s not saying ‘I’m gonna get better…,’” he said. “It’s screaming at me, ‘You will get better! There is no other option but to get better!’ It’s a command instead of a question or a quiet response.”
This isn’t really an album you’ll want to have playing while hanging out with friends — save a few like “Goshen ‘97” — but it makes for one hell of a headphone album. If you’re in the mood for some soul searching, or just some passionate mood music, you will definitely want to check out “HEAL.”
Thanks for your sweet tunes to play, Tim.
Goshen ‘97 feat. J Mascis - The only track on the album that sounds like the indie rocker that it is, the guitars drive the song with an energetic intensity. J Mascis, of Dinosaur Jr. fame, does what he does best and rips into some awesome melodic guitar solos throughout.
JM - One of the most dynamic songs of the album (in an album of dynamic music), “JM” moves from a whisper-like quality to an explosive, heavy and victorious jam. You’ll find yourself reciting “I had your sweet tunes to play” in your head all day, too.
Plymouth - This song is the most mellow, straightforward track on the album and it’s pleasant to listen to. The bass, as simple as it is, really keeps the song grooving forward. The reflective lyrics demonstrate a lot of wisdom, too, with such phrases like “comfortable doesn’t mean you’re better off,” and “we were beautiful, broken and young.”
The music of “HEAL” won’t blow your mind, but it is such essential mood music, it gets a solid three. There are some nice synthesizers at play, though. With most musicians out there, their music just sounds cool. With this album though, the music grabs your heart and soul and makes you really feel what it’s saying. Listen to “JM” or “Mirage Year” to catch my drift.
It’s probably safe to say most musicians out there want to make music that’s fun and groovy. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but on the other hand, there are few artists out there who are making music like Showalter. He’s just about secured the genre of “catharsis music,” and he does it with synthesized flair. Still, you won’t find many groundbreaking elements in the album.
Showalter isn’t a normal songwriter. The lyrics aren’t mystical epics about mankind’s potential or how a woman did him wrong. The lyrics here are personal and self-aware. For example, take the lyrics, “I spent 10 long years feeling so fucking bad / I knew you cheated on me / But I cheated on myself” from “HEAL.” Or “I was mean to my dad, cause I was mean to myself / I had your sweet tunes to play,” from “JM” (An ode to Jason Molina). The lyrics stand out. He’s just baring his soul in this stuff. He writes as if this music is his therapy and it’s just so…human.
Stream “HEAL” on Spotify here: