With a thick, face-concealing beard, stringy long hair and black t-shirts galore, Timothy Showalter would not look that out of place fronting a metal band. But for many years, his band Strand Of Oaks crafted woodsy American folk songs that stirred emotions more with their intimacy than intensity. Yet the Philadelphia band’s latest album, Heal, represents a turning point, both sonically and cathartically, with folk rock songs that let Showalter and company show off a richer and mightier palette that may just capture some of that metal spirit.
That’s clear from the very first song, “Goshen ’97,” a blustery guitar anthem that packs a wallop.
And in the soaring synth pop-indebted tracks like “Same Emotions” and “Wait For Love.”
Still, at the heart of Strand Of Oaks’ music is Showalter’s brutally honest lyrics, that while specific to his experiences — growing up in Indiana, his crumbling marriage, and struggles with alcohol and other dangerous behavior on the road — remain relatable to anyone. And there are lessons to be found, especially the gorgeous song “JM,” which serves as a seven-minute ode to the late songwriter Jason Molina of The Magnolia Electric Co., who died of complications due to alcoholism in 2013.
Despite the heavy tone, all throughout Heal, Showalter and Strand Of Oaks ruminate in and remember these dark times as a way to move forward. And watching Showalter perform on stage, you can’t help but get swept up in his sincere positivity. You see it in his 100% committed, gut-wrenching, lose-your-voice showmanship, and in the way gushes to the audience about how his fans saved his life by supporting him and his music, how he strives to be a better person, and why writing and performing music is such a passion for him. It sounds obvious, but you rarely see this sort of thing from a performer and truly feel it’s legitimate. But with Strand Of Oaks, it’s like a life-affirming bear hug that says “We’re all in this together.”
It’s a winning combination that demonstrates why Heal is considered by so many to be among the best records of the year.