You could say that Timothy Showalter almost literally conceived Strand of Oaks from the ashes of a fire. In the early 2000s, the Indiana native moved to Pennsylvania with his wife and began touring as a solo artist. It was while on this tour that he would later find his marriage dissolving due to infidelity. Shortly after receiving the devastating emotional blow, matters were made worse when his house burned down and he was left with only a few personal belongings. From the very beginning of his aspirations as an artist, he was met with incredible adversity. Spending time from hotel to hotel, and sometimes on park benches, Showalter penned songs that would later develop into Leave Ruin, the 2009 debut album from Strand of Oaks. Listening to that record in 2017 is a phenomenally distanced experience than when it first came out. That was a sparse, aching snapshot of a person torn apart. It felt like a DIY record made alone in a basement, yet there was a lot of life in the words.
In the time since then, Showalter has explored a variety of territory when it comes to sound for each record. 2010’s Pope Killdragon had a haunting, goth folk quality that added a new dynamic and intrigue to his appeal, and 2012’s largely overlooked Dark Shores, produced by the wizard John Vanderslice, was a diverse and impressive offering. At that point, his music just had that feel of a natural progression toward something bigger, something demanding more attention. Shortly before heading into the studio to lay down tracks for his fourth album, he was in a near-death car crash that broke every rib on his right side. Less than a week after this, he insisted on keeping the studio appointment scheduled, and he delivered an extra intensity to a set of songs that would later become HEAL, his 2014 breakthrough. The album was introspective and directly autobiographical. It was a frequently triumphant snapshot of a person who had stared death straight in the eye, and reflects back on the defining moments in his life to this point. He had emerged from the ashes once again, and the work that poured out from further adversity was finally paying off on a wider scale.
Now, far removed from the jet black, unfortunate moments earlier in his life and career, Showalter is set to shed it all and move forward with Hard Love, a flat-out rock record that is meant to embrace the good things. It’s a moment that he has earned, and the idea was a good one on paper, but the results on tape are mostly uneven. The title track is a promising glimpse into what the album could have been, and although it is clear that he is having a fun time riffing and wailing throughout these nine tracks, there’s a meandering feel to the lyrics that puts a crooked fork in the road. Some songs, such as “Cry” and “Quit It”, are captivating in buildup only to fall flat in the middle. He’s been very adamant that he wants nothing to do with the themes and sounds of HEAL anymore, but it is the lead single “Radio Kids” (the most HEAL-like) that proves to be the most memorable on Hard Love. One cannot fault him for attempting to make a fun rock record, but it’s a missed opportunity and the first time he hasn’t connected lyrically.