Strand of Oaks – Eraserland
Stunning. Eraserland, the new album by Timothy Showalter’s Strand of Oaks, is simply stunning. Acoustic introspection and full-throttle riffs. This is such stuff as indie dreams are made on. And the most remarkable part is that it was nearly never made. For in late 2017, following some disappointing reviews of his largely disappointing previous album, Hard Love, Showalter was having a crisis of musical confidence. Having progressed in relatively short order from acoustic strummer to electric shredder, where was he to go now? Back to the acoustic future? Luckily, Carl Broemel and some other My Morning Jacketeers were around to help resolve the dilemma. Giving Showalter the confidence to start writing again, the result is Eraserland. With its gentle introductions, this is a place of intense introspection. But with its raging crescendos, this is one that sounds gloriously alive too. And there’s more than a little wisdom on hand. “If you believe you can be loved, You’ll outlive your past”. With some help along the way, Timothy Showalter has shown that it’s possible to overcome adversity and create something new and magnificent. Something stunning. Eraserland.
Goshen Electric Co. – The Gray Tower
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
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.
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.
Consequence of Sound review
AV Club review
The 405 review