Looking back through Strand Of Oaks’ discography, a murky theme emerges. 'Leave Ruin' (2009), 'Pope Killdragon' (2010), 'Dark Shores' (2012), 'HEAL' (2014), 'Hard Love' (2017) and 'Eraserland' (2019): these album titles evoke mysticism and surrealism, religion and apocalypticism. Strand Of Oaks’ latest release, ‘In Heaven’, is no exception from this pattern. The man behind the moniker is Timothy Showalter, Indiana born and Austin relocated. Understanding Showalter’s history gives context to his work. Though just 39 years of age, Showalter has already been thwarted by arthritis, an unfaithful wife, a home burned down and a near-death car crash. For Showalter, the Strand Of Oaks project has provided inspiration and release from trauma.
‘In Heaven’ continues along the same railroad. On opening single 'Galacticana', Showalter confesses, “I don’t want to drag you down” – his layered harmonies reasserting that intention. As a listener however, it’s difficult to resist Showalter’s sinkhole pull. Lyrics like “we’re just moments in the dark / lonely fragments made of stars…cosmic dust / made of blood” on 'Horses At Night', are eerie to the point of distraction, making our human efforts seem futile to the point of being overwhelming. Adding to the mood is Showalter’s signature chainsaw vocal. While some may appreciate its strength and conviction, the relentlessness of just that causes claustrophobia in its heavy handedness. The rhyming couplets structuring most verses across ‘In Heaven’ are disappointingly predictable; like seeing how every piece of a jigsaw will fit moments after unboxing. Some delicate variations in both vocal dexterity and lyricism would provide refreshment across the eleven tracks.
Hurry hits some kind of rock bottom, as the mid-track breakdown has Showalter, clarified, singing, “this world’s not meant for me / till our bodies go back to the water”. The vocal reverb and insistent drums however, create transcendence in the track – implying some kind of miracle can occur at the point when all seems lost. Pockets of much needed light continue to break through across the album. Take 'Somewhere In Chicago', for instance, or 'Jimi & Stan\. The one a tribute to the late John Prine, the other a tribute to Showalter’s late cat. Somewhere in Chicago is sweet and innocent; the call and response providing the delicacy we’ve been craving. The major key is striking in its uplift, and emphasises how much of this album festers in the minor. 'Jimi & Stan' plays with the notion that Showalter’s cat is hanging out with Jimi Hendrix in heaven. It’s a welcome touch of humour that does not pass unnoticed or unappreciated. References to rock ‘n’ roll legends punctuate this album, as Showalter repeats, “We walked to the river singing 'Whole Lotta Love...'”. It’s an intelligent way of revealing his personality; as much as we have seen what Showalter recoils from on ‘In Heaven’, it’s satisfying to see what, or whom, he reveres.
Timothy Showalter has undoubtedly achieved long lasting success with Strand Of Oaks – seven studio albums firmly attest to that. His hard hitting vocal is emotive and emotional; his instrumentation reliable yet creative. On ‘In Heaven’, beacons of musical light have proved welcome through the stormy weather. Continuing to give airtime to these softer, more playful moments could see Showalter achieve greater success in mainstream circles.
Words: Sophie Church
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