Album Review: Strand of Oaks, ‘HEAL’ (deluxe edition)
If it seems way too early to issue the deluxe edition of an album just a year after its initial release, perhaps it's never too soon to be reminded of music's power to provide a salve during difficult times. For Strand of Oaks founder/nucleus Tim Showalter, the act of writing the material on HEAL helped propel him through a personal crisis period marked by professional and marital uncertainty. Driven by this inner and outer turmoil, Showalter experienced an outpouring of inspiration, writing 30 songs over the course of three weeks.
Then, in late 2013, once he had recorded the album with producer John Congleton (Modest Mouse, St. Vincent, Sigur Rós) Showalter was about to begin the mixing process when he and his wife got into in a serious car accident. Understandably, the couple's ensuing injuries added an extra element of urgency to project's completion. At times, especially in its most power ballad-styled moments, HEAL does indeed sound like the work of a man starting down the barrel of too many regrets. At other times, though, such as album opener "Goshen '97," Showalter gets his bearings again by focusing on celebratory moments. A stomping rocker, the song gives listeners context for Showalter's adult angst by revisiting his basement as a teenager growing up in Goshen, Ind.
"I was lonely," Showalter sings, "but I was havin' fun." If it's hard to imagine being lonely and having fun at the same time, Showalter and his supporting cast -- drummer Steve Clements and "synth expert"/recording engineer Ben Vehorn -- make it easier by lacing the song with music that conveys both sensations.
Aside from its lyrical content, HEAL captures Showalter's move from spare, folk-Americana to a big-muscled sound influenced by 1970s classic rock. Showalter embraced big-scale production from the '80s as well, with songs like the synth-driven "Same Emotions" that essentially re-create the production template of the era. In other cases, such as on downtempo number "JM," Showalter cleverly blends introspective Americana, piano pop, brooding arena rock, and huge swells of guitar into a seamless new whole that's both familiar and fresh.
Naturally, Showalter spends much of HEAL looking inward. "You gotta heal," he sings on the title track.
This new deluxe package features five additional bonus tracks. The live rendition of the non-HEAL tune, "My Wrecking Ball," provides a reminder of Showalter's penchant for straight-ahead, acoustic guitar-driven folk, a side of himself that he doesn't otherwise show in the original song sequence. On the other hand, the queasy-dream synth swirl of bonus cut "Pink Rabbits" sounds right at home alongside the rest of the album.