On Leave Ruin, no one can accuse Timothy Showalter of being dishonest or even coy. The singer-songwriter, who was raised as a Mennonite in Indiana and now teaches at a Hebrew school in Pennsylvania, crafts spare folk with his Strand of Oaks project, and the stories he lays over these hushed compositions are deeply affecting, and sometimes uncomfortably intimate confessionals.
Showalter’s greatest skill in these songs is his surgical ability to illuminate one detail that gives us all the pain these characters are dancing around. A father mowing the lawn on “Lawn Breeds Songs”, or the disarray of a sweat-soaked bed on “End in Flames” show us the hurt behind all the talking these characters do. Because they do talk, and they give up any and all ghosts, but they don’t truly reveal the best stuff to us until they start describing the scene around them. It’s Showalter’s ability to paint those little details, and weave them through honeyed melodies, that make songs like the elegiac and aching “Mourning Worker” the kind of beautiful sad that so many songwriters try for and miss.
Sometimes, though, Leave Ruin finds Showalter giving us the confessions without the exquisite details. On tracks like the terribly uncomfortable “Sister Evangeline”, the characters’ confessions sound more like self-congratulatory admissions without the heart-aching details to give them some substance. These flatter confessions threaten to derail longer compositions on the album, like the seven-plus-minute “New Paris” and the nine-minute “Do You Like to Read?”. But on both songs, and over the course of the album, Showalter gets the mix right far more than he gets it wrong. And he doesn’t lose sight of precision when he stretches the tracks out. All in all, Leave Ruin is a lush and heartbreaking bit of folk music. Sure, it maybe imperfect, but it is refreshing to see an artist miss-stepping towards honesty rather than away from it.