All of the songs Timothy Showalter writes as Strand of Oaks are based on true stories. And in Strand of Oaks songs, lovers get divorced, murder John Belushi’s drug dealer, go bowling with mythical giants, watch their youth slip away and commune with John F. Kennedy’s illegitimate son. Obviously, Showalter has allowed himself many liberties with what constitutes the truth, and his commingling of fact and fiction, of humor and heartbreak simultaneously distinguishes him from the bearded, acoustic-toting singer-songwriters he’s so easily compared to: immerse yourself in a Strand of Oaks record and confessionals turn into metaphor, autobiography transferred into tall tales.
This has been Strand of Oaks’ M.O. over the span of three albums, the latest of which is Dark Shores, the most direct and accomplished to date. But a little backstory. We’ll start with the basics: raised in Indiana and transplanted to equally mundane, not-quite suburban, not-quite rural Pennsylvania, MTV was the sole constant in Showalter’s upbringing. Inspired by a deep love of the Smashing Pumpkins and far lesser Buzz Bin bands, Showalter took to performing in an electro band called “Mind Groove.” The raw and haunting guise of Strand of Oaks proved to be the optimum mode in which to tell his stories. Which were often ones of tragic results. It might just be easier and “sexier” to rehash the torment, disappointment and setbacks that inspired Strand of Oaks’ debut Leave Ruin – it’s a striking gutpunch of a record that undoubtedly could’ve wowed the masses by playing up the sympathy card. But note the title: Leave Ruin. Strand of Oaks songs have increasingly distanced themselves from The Life of Timothy Showalter, and Strand of Oaks has increasingly become more than Timothy Showalter.
That was even more pronounced on 2010’s Pope Killdragon, which experimented with black metal fantasias and dry-ice synths, a work of staggering originality that simply had to be noticed in spite of its humble creation. The self-released, self-promoted Killdragon earned an “eMusic selects” designation and an 8.1 score at notoriously fickle Pitchfork. In the years that followed, Strand of Oaks found itself touring with Eric Bachmann’s Crooked Fingers and The Tallest Man on Earth, both heroes and peers.Emboldened by the success of Pope Killdragon’s prog-folk synthesis, Showalter entered the studio intending to write songs that mixed Tangerine Dream synthesizer dreamscapes with the puzzling lyricism of Kate Bush. He instead ended up with “Satellite Moon,” a rough-hewn acoustic shamble about fearing an impending divorce and “Sleeping Pills,” the closing track which shares some similarly uncomfortable truths about his personal life. The former soon became told from the perspective of a failed astronaut farmer, the latter remained all the more stark for retaining its plainspoken lyricism. In other words, they became Strand of Oaks songs.
So it went, and even if Showalter admits he failed in his original aim, he landed somewhere just as strange. There are lonely ballads about alien abduction and ice moons, angst-ridden rockers about picnics and the quotidian economic troubles facing humble Midwesterners such as himself. In addition to being Strand of Oaks at its “realest,” Dark Shores is Showalter’s sparest record and most professional as well. Showalter took to touring Pope Killdragon as both a solo act and a four-piece and while retaining the first solid touring band, renowned singer/songwriter/producer John Vanderslice reached out to Showalter to lend his sonic touch. The results are immediately identifiable – acoustics are crisp and shimmering, the synths and 12-string guitars rich with texture. Strangely enough, the tech-obsessed Vanderslice said the ‘80s polysynths had to go in order to wisely foreground Showalter’s vocals. They remain front and center and deliver his toughest and catchiest melodies – “Maureen’s” and “Satellite Moon” in particular ache with the same heartland longing that drove Jason Molina to Bob Seger.
Dark Shores delivers on the promise of its title in the same way Leave Ruin and Pope Killdragon did: this is a record of encroaching uncertainty, of diving into the unknown, of risk in the face of vast, unforgiving nature. But as always, within the auspices of Strand of Oaks, Timothy Showalter’s reality is flipped into devastating, absurd and always compelling theater.