Strand of Oaks – HEAL
Have you ever waved good bye to one of your favourite artists? Perhaps the creative juices have dried up, making what was once exciting now merely formulaic. Or maybe there’s been a violent musical volte-face and the new sound simply isn’t appealing. Last year, this was the fate of John Grant. The shift from Midlake to Depeche Mode was so disconcerting that it wasn’t so much a matter of waving him goodbye, as hailing a taxi to take him to the train station, making sure he was sitting comfortably in the carriage, and paying the engine driver to take him a very long way away. This year, a similar fate threatens Timothy Showalter, recording as Strand of Oaks. After a couple of albums of gloriously spare indie folk, he’s returned with a heavy, pounding guitar and synth-led album. Hell, J Mascis even guests on the opening track. Like John Grant, most of the songs on HEAL address Showalter’s previous drug and alcohol issues head on. Also like Grant, there’s a barely disguised sense of self-loathing for his former life. Showalter was, in his own words, “an abomination”. “I spent ten long years feeling so fucking bad”, he confesses on the title track. But now he’s changed. And it’s not just his habits he’s transformed, it’s his music too. HEAL is certainly a departure and that’s always welcome in principle. But the grinding guitar riffs, the Journey-style synths, the 70s solos? He may now be heavy, but he’s no longer my brother. So, it’s tempting just to wave goodbye to Showalter and wish him well on his way. But it’s not quite that simple. Showalter is a wonderful lyricist and a very thoughtful songwriter and there’s still some really good stuff here. ‘JM’, a song for Jason Molina, not J Mascis, is magnificent, evoking both the quiet, plaintive guitar side of Molina’s work and the riff-heavy Crazy Horse side. ‘Mirage Year’ showcases both Showalter’s new and old musical personas and they combine to good effect. It’s only when he luxuriates in the new guitar and synthy sound, especially at the start of the album, that things fail to connect. For now, then, it’s not so much adieu as au revoir. The best may be behind us or it may still be yet to come.