Strand of Oaks — In Heaven
There has inarguably been an immense amount of grief over the past year and a half, but sometimes lost in the combined fog of COVID, racial protest, police brutality and insurrection, is the fact that normal life, with all of its attendant loss and heartbreak, has continued to push on, and even those of us not directly affected by the most visible calamities are still dealing with our share of sh!t. Tim Showalter, the man behind (and in front of) Strand of Oaks, has had more than his share of family tragedy and life upheaval lately (and that’s aside from the disruptions that the pandemic has slapped on artists and touring musicians). After losing his mother-in-law and a family pet, plus relocating from Philadelphia to Austin and somehow maintaining his sobriety through all of it, Showalter did what a songwriter does – make art out of his mess. The result: the twisty, turny, positively cosmic new album, In Heaven.
The jammy feel of the new record pops from its lead track and first single, “Galacticana.” Acoustic and electric guitars, piano and synth all bounce off of each other as Showalter feels the push-pull between the (often darker) past and the promise of a future beyond all of this mess – “Laughing as a self defense, crying at my own expense together/Yeah, I like wearing black, it feels safe to walk around in leather” (seems like leather is his version of the “safety in sweatpants” mantra so many of y’all adopted last year). “Hurry,” with no attempt at irony, is a little slower and insular at its outset. Acoustic and echo-filled, the song pushes back against the unnecessary rush that can, in part, lead to substance dependence as a coping mechanism – “All you distractions/Pointless reactions just to hurry.” The spacey, electric coda illustrates Showalter’s rejection of the notion of a non-stop way of life with its hypnotic refrain: “This world’s not meant for me.”
Showalter addresses loss both timely (the passing of John Prine) and seemingly mundane (his family’s cat, Stan). “Somewhere in Chicago” is the most traditionally Americana-sounding tune on the record, which imagines Prine eternally wandering his hometown, still doing what Showalter also does to center himself – “Where you gonna hide when the mist is gone/Take it out back and use it in a song.” It’s a comforting image, for him and for us.
Then, there’s the cat. As with Mr. Prine, Showalter imagines his pet in a happy place. “Jimi and Stan” pictures Stan and, yes, Jimi Hendrix on some different plane where both enjoy going to shows (that’s one hell of a cat) while Showalter misses both of them while envying their freedom – “Back in life I wonder why we hang around so long/For me it’s all the songs I haven’t found.” Sure, it’s an odd image. But if you’ve ever had THAT pet, you’ll get it. Less whimsical, but even more heartfelt, are the two songs on In Heaven which go to Showalter’s wife, Sue. “Easter” is a mash-up of synths and steel guitar that somehow works, while the singer acknowledges the pain they both felt when Sue’s mother passed – “Where’s your soul/I could feel it when you go.” And the last track on the record, “Under Heaven,” is a short, piano-and-voice acknowledgement of what they’ve been through together – “You and me/Delusionally/We rise and fall.” Whether it’s the grand losses or the day-in, day-out little earthquakes, Showalter has found in himself a song that fits each of those moments.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Galacticana” – Showalter, understandably, has decided to delay touring for the time being. When he hits the theaters, the expansive album-opener seems like the perfect way to introduce the record to live audiences.
In Heaven was produced by Kevin Ratterman and Timothy Showalter and mixed and mastered by Ratterman. All songs were written by Showalter. Additional musicians on the album include Ratterman (drums), Carl Broemel (guitar), Bo Koster (keyboards), Cedric LeMoyne (bass), Scott Moore (violin) and James Iha (guitar, vocals).
Go here to order In Heaven (out October 1): https://www.hellomerch.com/collections/strand-of-oaks