Strand of Oaks - Heal

by Ethan Ranis Rating:9.5 Release Date:2014-07-14

Just ignore the cover art and focus on the rating down there.Yes, that's hirsute singer/songwriter Timothy Showalter on the cover, but while it looks like the cover of a 70s porno, the only way it represents the music within is the retro aspect. HEAL's sound is rooted in late 70s/early 80s arena rock, and synths and keys are featured almost as prominently as guitars, most notably on the title track. 

The production generally sounds huge, echoey and stadium-ready, with pounding drum machines.  But there's a rawness here which takes the edge off anything that might be cheesy or overly referential. This album works because it fuses those familiar, epic sounds with the sincerity and confessional detail one might expect from an acoustic album.

Opener 'Goshen '97' is a bit misleading in that regard, with a garage-psychedelia stomp that could be mistaken for a Mikal Cronin or Ty Segal song. A nostalgic look back at recording on an old Casio boombox, it's probably the happiest song on the album, but it's also a suitable introduction before the title track brings the demons out into full display. The specter of alcoholism and addiction haunts several songs on the album, particularly on the Springsteen-esque 'Shut In', where Showalter describes a time where he would "just get loaded and never leave [his] house", turning the loneliness and despair of his situation into something anthemic.

Centerpiece 'JM' crystalizes these themes. A seven-minute tribute to the late Jason Molina of Songs:Ohia, the song's slow tempo is nonetheless compelling and does not drag the album down.  The wild, emotive guitar solo which occupies the middle of the song certainly helps retain attention.

That the simply gorgeous 'Plymouth' follows is a triumph of sequencing. Similar craftsmanship is visible on a moment-to-moment level: when 'Mirage Year' unexpectedly shifts on a scream from ballad to burnout, the effect is stunning.

HEAL covers a lot of ground traced by other artists, and one could spend all day making lazy comparisons: the sonics sound like Springsteen (or more recently, The War on Drugs), and Showalter's vocals are often a bit reminiscent of Jim James, or perhaps Bon Iver if Justin Vernon sang like he had a pair. But the fact is that whatever superficial similarities this album bears to those other artists (some of whom are excellent in their own right), it's set apart by brilliant execution and forthrightness. 

HEAL is proof classic rock's sounds can still be used to serve a purpose, and if you've ever liked guitar music, you owe it a listen.

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