Goshen Electric Co. – The Gray Tower

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Goshen Electric Co. are Timothy Showalter of Strand of Oaks plus one incarnation of Jason Molina’s backing band during the Magnolia Electric Co. era. They’ve just recorded a three-track EP and ‘The Gray Tower’ is the first track. They’ve also embarked on a short European tour. They were at the Tivoli Theatre in Dublin on Tuesday. Outside, it was a glorious evening. Beautiful. Clear. Inside, it was glorious too. Unofficial MC for the evening was guitarist Jason Groth. There were readings by Erin Osman from her biography of Molina. There was a guest appearance from the great Adrian Crowley. And the set list was more a wish list of Molina songs, beginning with ‘Farewell Transmission’, and ending with ‘Lioness’.

‘The Gray Tower’ is a Jason Molina song. There’s a demo version on the deluxe edition of Didn’t It Rain and a 7″ version that can now be found on the Journey On singles collection. Showalter and Co. have beefed the song up, giving it the Trials and Errors treatment. They’ve taken away some of the vulnerability of the original version, but they’ve also turned it into another one of the best songs that Neil Young never wrote. So, that’s absolutely fine.

In the video, Showalter is in full-on HEAL or Hard Love mode, tattoos everywhere, biceps bulging. On stage the other night, though, he was completely covered up, wearing a velvet smoking jacket and fedora. He was also very respectful, being careful to make sure that this was not a show about him, but Molina. Showalter himself is a big Molina fan. On HEAL, which was released not long after Molina died, he recorded a song called ‘JM’. The band played it on Tuesday and it was very moving. “Now it’s hard to hear you sing, the crow has lost his wings, But I still got your sweet tunes to play”.

Showalter isn’t the only artist to have covered Molina. Glen Hansard has too. In fact, Erin Osman mentioned him in dispatches on the night. In 2015 he released five Molina songs under the title It Was Triumph We Once Proposed. It includes a glorious version of ‘Farewell Transmission’ as well as a lovely cover of ‘Being in Love’. The last words should go to Jason Molina himself. “We are proof that the heart is a risky fuel to burn, What’s left after that’s all gone I hope to never learn, But if you stick with me you can help me, I’m sure we’ll find new things to burn, Cause we are proof that the heart is a risky fuel to burn”.

Strand of Oaks – Hard Love

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Strand of Oaks’ previous album, HEAL, marked the final instalment of Timothy Showalter’s transformation from the shy indie folk artist of Pope Kildragon to the muscular, tattooed, angry-sounding noise maker of ‘Goshen ’97’. In fact, the change in style was so profound that it raised the inevitable question ‘what could possibly come next?’ A ten-track homage to Mickey Rourke? A concept album about WWF? ‘Hard Love’ provides the answer. In some respects, things have been toned down a little. There’s a quiet piano-led ballad, ‘Cry’. And on songs such as ‘Salt Brothers’, there’s a reminder of the distinctively fragile quality that Showalter’s voice can have, something which had gotten a little lost over time. That’s not to say there isn’t a fearsome aspect to some of the sounds. ‘Everything’ being a case in point. But this time the energy tends to be channeled to a Springsteen-like end, with ‘Radio Kids’ sounding like it was born in the early 1980s, while ‘On The Hill’ is a truly great workout. With Hard Love Timothy Showalter has found a sweet spot between the fey indie artist at an open mic night in a university town and the hard-living, loud-playing ’70s rock ‘n’ roll star. For the listener, it’s a good place to be. Hard Love it might be, but it’s his best album yet.

Happy New Year. Surely, 2017 can only be better than 2016. But who knows at the moment? What’s for sure is that music will always be a comfort. In that spirit, highly anticipated 2017 releases include confirmed albums from Elbow, Fleet Foxes, Foxygen, Grandaddy, Grizzly Bear, Horse Thief, Nadia Reid, Nikki Lane, Real Estate, Ryan Adams, The Shins, Son Volt, Strand of Oaks, and Sun Kil Moon. And then there’s always the H-LM wish list. This year, it includes Adrian Crowley, Alela Diane, Anaïs Mitchell, Bill Callahan, David Vandervelde, Feist, Field Report, Fionn Regan, First Aid Kit, Israel Nash, Jason Isbell, Jim White, Laura Veirs, Lewis & Clarke, Noah Gunderson, and Phosphorescent. Mind you, some of these artists were on my wish list this time last year. So, fingers are tightly crossed. Whatever happens, let’s start the new year with some good news. Word is in that Kramies is recording new demos. I can’t wait to hear the end result. In the meantime, here’s Kramies (feat. Jason Lytle) with ‘Clocks Were All Broken’.

Strand of Oaks – HEAL

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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.

Pitchfork review

Consequence of Sound review

Spin review

AV Club review

The 405 review

Strand of Oaks – Dark Shores

Timothy Showalter, the name behind Strand of Oaks, is a great story teller. On ‘Daniel’s Blues’ from his previous album, Pope Killdragon, he plays the part of Dan Akroyd and he’s in a really bad place after the loss of John Belushi. “Rushed to call my agent on my Monday, I need new work to get my head out of this, It’s with a young kid named Murray, It’s a ghost flick but the hell with it’. On Pope Killdragon most of the songs were in the first person, but they felt like they were about other people. So maybe Showalter did dream that he “stayed in the Sterling, In the same bed as Kennedy”, but whether or not he did isn’t important. It’s just a way of setting up the next part of the story where he reminisces that “Jackie and Johnny and Caroline would ride up the mainline”. On the previous album, there’s little doubt that, however the story was told, most of the songs were about Showalter himself and his feelings of loss and anomie. On the new release, Dark Shores, the same is true, but the link is more direct. On ‘Diamond Drill’, he sings that ‘Moon living is a lonely life’. It’s a nice image. But he ends the song with little ambiguity, “As much as it kills me to say it, As much as I like things now, Everyone I know, will either move away or die”. On ‘Spacestations’, he welcomes us up to his home in the sky, “Stay as long as you like, its a sad vocation”. On ‘Satellite Moon’, a third track with the ‘in space no one can hear you scream’ motif, he leaves us in no doubt. “Holy shit I feel like giving up”. On Pope Killdragon, the stories were spun around a pretty lo-fi production, mainly just guitars, synths and a little percussion. Here, there’s more of a band sound. As with the lyrics, it makes things a little less oblique. A little more straightforward. But it doesn’t change much. This is a great album. It’s slightly less immediate than Pope Killdragon. And the sound is different. But, crucially, the story telling is intact. “Minerals formed by the rain, Whispers echo deep inside the cave, On an ice moon where all our fathers’ live, We’ll go there to find some rest”.

Strand of Oaks Bandcamp site