review: Strand of Oaks’ ‘Eraserland’ is a humble gem
"They always want the next one to be bigger, nothing was changing, nothing was real," Tim Showalter howls on "Final Fires" off his new album Eraserland, and it seems believable that he's talking about his own music. After starting Strand of Oaks as a bare-bones folk project, he turned it into a loud rock band on 2014's HEAL and went even further in that direction with 2017's mountainous Hard Love. Hard Love was his most ambitious album to date. But on Eraserland, he doesn't sound interested in going bigger once again. Instead of trying to top the drugs-and-sex-fueled Hard Love, it sounds like he's trying to go in a different direction with his life, and as a result, with his music. "The scene isn't my scene anymore," he admits on album opener "Weird Ways." On "Keys," he wonders if this rock and roll thing is really worth it: "I swear I'll have a hit and get paid," he insists -- maybe trying to convince himself. The way Tim tells it, the album almost didn't exist at all. He says that 4/5 of My Morning Jacket (Carl Broemel, Bo Koster, Patrick Hallahan and Tom Blankenship) and MMJ producer Kevin Ratterman booked studio time for him before he had even written the record, convinced him to go through with it, and then ended up recording it with him as his backing band.
The anxieties Tim expresses on these songs are understandable, but as long as he keeps writing records as strong as Eraserland, I hope he doesn't throw in the towel any time soon. It sounds less ambitious than its two predecessors, but Tim and the MMJ guys are such naturals that even this more modest approach resulted in a fleshed-out rock album. (Not to mention another expert, seasoned musician, Jason Isbell, provided the screaming lead guitar on "Moon Landing.") Eraserland reminds me of albums like The National's Trouble Will Find Me or The Tallest Man On Earth's There's No Leaving Now, followups to career peaks that felt a little more tucked-away than their predecessors, but no less appealing once you dug into them. Sometimes these types of albums are the ones that end up sticking with you the most, and I can see that happening with Eraserland. Start to finish, it's one of Strand of Oaks' most consistently rewarding albums.
Hard Love and HEAL both had upbeat, driving rockers that acted as clear standouts ("Radio Kids" and "Goshen '97," respectively), and while Eraserland has one of those real driving songs too ("Hyperspace Blues"), it doesn't overshadow anything else on the album. In fact, the songs that hit hardest on Eraserland tend to be the slower ones. One of the early highlights is the psychedelic ballad "Visions," where Tim hooks you in not with a banger chorus but by stretching out his vowels over satisfying, slow-burning chords. Another is "Wild and Willing," which has nothing more than Tim's voice and his gently strummed acoustic guitar. He hasn't put a song this stripped-back on an album since 2012's Dark Shores, and after the long, strange trip he's been on since then, it feels like a welcome return to how it all started.
Perhaps the most arresting song is the Emma Ruth Rundle-aided title track, a dose of atmospheric folk rock where Tim has you hanging on his every word as he addresses a woman named Mary and sings to her about his life, his career, drugs, the state of the world. So many Strand of Oaks songs have seen Tim reminiscing about his past that it's startling to hear him sing with such uncertainty about his future. "Mary should I have some kids? Build a house where no one lives, get away from my phone and drugs, just my wife and people I love?" he asks, like he's genuinely searching for answers. That song is indicative of the general tone of Eraserland, an album where Tim sounds generally less assured than on its predecessor. He hasn't fully escaped the hedonism of Hard Love, but it sounds like he's starting to focus on the negative side effects. "How much did you say I should take? You said a cap - shit, I took an eighth," he wails on the aforementioned "Visions," before warning "If I were you, I'd stay the hell away from me." On the alt-country-ish "Keys," he's a little more blunt: "I gotta get my shit together before I'm forty."
When he does reminisce on his past, as on the gorgeous nine-minute closing song "Forever Chords," it's with a newfound wisdom that he didn't show on past albums. "Forever chords you learned as a kid / That endless hope of all that's ahead," he hums over the gradually building piano ballad, before adding, "If you believe you can be loved, you'll outlive your past / And you hope it never ends." He repeats that last line as the song builds to a fuzzed-out guitar freakout and eventually fades away. It's a fine note for this album to go out on; what started as the story of a person considering giving up on something they love ends with a reminder of the wide-eyed ambition that got them started in the first place.
Eraserland comes out this Friday (3/22) via Dead Oceans.
We'll update with a stream once its out. Until then, you can stream three of its songs (and watch a video of Strand of Oaks performing one on Colbert with Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires) below. Also, catch Strand of Oaks on tour with Wild Pink.
UPDATE: The album is out now and you can stream it below.