Timothy Showalter, a.k.a. Strand of Oaks, hasn’t led the easiest adult life. Divorce, homelessness, a serious car accident that led to several broken ribs; it’s been a struggle, much of it making its way into his three previous albums. With the fourth, Hard Love, he continues to express the trials of everyday life through his unique brand of psychedelic electro-folk.
This time around he’s tapped Nicolas Vernhes (known for his work with Speedy Ortiz and Dirty Projectors) for production duties. In a press release, Showalter expressed a desire to convey a “loose, hedonistic vibe”.
Mission accomplished. The overall feel on Hard Love is akin to a garage band with a penchant for hallucinogens and an experimental tilt. Sometimes it works spectacularly, while other times it seems overstuffed. The title track opens the album pretty flawlessly, with a spacey keyboard bed and funky, off-kilter rhythm propping up the hooks. It’s a damn catchy song and provides the right balance of pop smarts and spacey weirdness.
“Radio Kids” (the first single) keeps things moving in the same direction, to an extent. The track is essentially a love letter to growing up surrounded by rock and, and Showalter’s dead-on vocal resemblance to Paul Westerberg gives the song a chilling Replacements vibe. “Play it, play it loud on the radio,” he sings. “I got my headphones on, and my parents will never know.” We all know the feeling. The people who don’t get this aren’t the kind of people who read album reviews. While the song seems a bit cluttered and over-arranged, the honesty and vitality manage to cut through the layers.
Hard Love, for the most part, is more ambitious and packs a greater, more eclectic punch than the previous Strand of Oaks albums. “Everything” is a generous slice of psychedelic Britpop. “Salt Brothers” has a bit of a heavy, epic quality to it, with swirling keyboards and soaring choruses. Showalter isn’t content to stick with one set of influences: the all-over-the-map approach allows for songs like “Rest of It” – a riff-heavy, strutting T. Rex soundalike – to stick out.
Tender ballads also get plenty of space of Hard Love. The aching, piano-led “Cry” is the album’s emotional centerpiece, but true to form, the song gently lets in chiming guitars, weird special effects, random chattering and background noise before screeching to a halt. The weirdness is a nice diversion, but occasionally distracting and unnecessary.
You want weird? The album closes with “Taking Acid and Talking to My Brother”, and yes, it’s just as freaky as the title implies. In a way, it’s one of the album’s strongest tracks because it makes no apologies for its unhinged, unvarnished psychedelia. Sounding like a strange cross between drone-like Velvet Underground and late ‘60s Grateful Dead LSD experiments, the song closed Hard Love on an ambitious, artistically unapologetic note.
Moving from the rich indie power pop of the opening song to the druggy epic finale in just under 40 minutes speak volumes for Timothy Showalter’s talent, vision and drive. Hard Love is overstuffed and perhaps a bit overambitious, but repeated listening will reap ample rewards.