When I first heard Strand of Oaks‘ 2009 debut album Leave Ruin I thought he was another dude trying to hitch a free ride on the fast travelling train that was Bon Iver‘s enormously successful For Emma, Forever Ago. The comparisons were easy and obvious; a sympathy inducing back story, a single artist using a moniker more suited to a band and a confessional “heart on sleeve” approach to song writing.
As a young, elitist music listener I valued authenticity above pretty much everything else (what good was a killer tune if it was sung with a forked tongue?*) and I didn’t believe in coincidence. For Emma, Forever Ago came before Leave Ruin and so Strand of Oaks (real name Timothy Sholwater) must have been little more than a cynical imitator. I was unforgiving, dismissive and damning, but most importantly misguided. I let my own shit get in the way of enjoying what was a really promising album.
Then Pope Killdragon came out and exposed me. Fiercely.
Strand of Oaks returns from the brink with a stunning new album, deserving of it’s all caps title. Listen to HEAL.
That album was unlike anything I had ever heard; abstract and surreal, intimate and sprawling, beautiful and savage and most importantly wholly original. I could crap on about it for a significant portion of this piece but that would be disrespectful to HEAL. Give Pope Killdragon a chance and Sholwater will pull you down the rabbit hole and into his world of odd ball characters and imagined personal histories. (Imagined histories? I don’t really know how to describe it any other way. Picture a grief stricken Dan Akroyd stalking the streets of Brooklyn for the drug dealer that sold John Belushi his fatal hit of heroin. That song exists. It references Ghostbusters. And it will send a powerful shiver down your spine. Just do yourself a massive favour and listen to Daniel’s Blues.)
After this encouraging period of success Strand of Oaks inexplicably sort of fell off my musical radar. In recent interviews Sholwater has been critical of the material he released between Pope Killdragon and HEAL and perhaps the lack of attention he received during this period was deserved. However, he has also spoken of a turbulent time in his personal life involving alcoholism, self-destruction and a dissolving marriage – I have heard these things can be bad for the old career. I have also heard these things can lead to periods of great artistic growth. This is exactly how the press have been selling HEAL; playing into that tortured artist stereotype that is concurrently fascinating and painfully cheap. The cynic in me tensed up, but the feeling passed, and by the time I was through my first listen of the J Mascis powered Goshen ’97 I couldn’t have cared less how this album was being sold to me. I just wanted to be shown more.
The album gets of to a roaring start with the guitar heroics of Goshen ’97 and keeps that momentum going all the way to second single Shut In. The melodies are strong and there is a pop sensibility that will endear Strand of Oaks to a much wider audience than anything Sholwater has done before.
It feels emphatic and, despite the dark subject matter, there is little wallowing. On title track HEAL, Sholwater sings about “giving in” and he doesn’t mean giving up. He sounds enthusiastic and determined and the effect is catching. On third track Same Emotions it sounds like Sholwater is desperately trying to coerce himself out of a stupor and begging you to join him on the dance floor (not the club kind but maybe a converted kitchen or a skating rink – check out his moves in the Goshen ’97 film clip above. He looks like the embodiment of music related joy.)
It should be noted that there is a cheesiness to a number of the songs, partially due to the vintage synthesisers, that some may find off-putting. But this playfulness tempers what could otherwise have been a pretty relentless outing. There is plenty of piss and vinegar in the brooding, dangerous and schizophrenic sounding JM and Mirage Year to keep the balance; I mean some of those guitar parts sound more like destruction than a “solo”**.
HEAL is a significant departure from anything Sholwater has done before and this could prove polarising for old fans. However, I am not sure there were too many of them to begin with, and this new direction feels more like solid growth than an unabashed attempt at a cash-grab. On Leave Ruin Sholwater sang “ Sorry your dad hates me so much, cause I’m doing everything he wished he could have” and at the time I thought it was a ridiculous line. I don’t know whose dad he was talking about and I doubt it was actually true. But if Sholwater was to address a younger version of himself with that same lyric, rather than some girl’s dad, then I think he would find he is right on the money.
FIND OUT MORE ON
[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/148571306″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
*A performer sincerely telling a story about something other than themselves (fiction) was far too much for my fledgling brain to handle at this stage of my development.
**Which I will add is fucking awesome.