Monday, February 2, 2009

Review: Strand of Oaks - Leave Ruin (* * * *)

Timothy Showalter, or Strand of Oaks, is a Pennsylvania-based school teacher and bus driver who recently released his debut album, Leave Ruin. The record is a collection of nine well-crafted folk tunes that have a worn, familiar feel to them despite this being Showalter's first effort. His string of personal tribulations and unique experiences seems to have gifted him with a world-weary, yet hopeful perspective that makes the album so earnestly compelling.

Showalter's classic folk presentation is, at times, reminiscent of songwriters like Neil Young or Bob Dylan, though Strand of Oaks carves out a sound that uses these influences as a guide and not as a blueprint. The opening three tracks are arguably the album's strongest; "End in Flames" is both sad and sweet, "Two Kids" is a brief, delicate love song to a single mother, and "Lawns Breed Songs" is an honest plea from son to father. Not every track succeeds so completely, but Leave Ruin contains no filler, either. The songs vary greatly in length, with the shortest at two and a half minutes, and the longest at an even nine. Along with the subtle variety in style, the song structures add some needed diversity to the album.

Showalter's voice is soft, but not wispy or delicate, and it carries an incredible sense of emotion into each of his tunes. At times, Leave Ruin is regretful, "Sorry you missed the test, sorry you missed the dance, sorry your mom hates me so much, 'cause I'm everything she wants in a man," occasionally hopeful, "I hope someday to whisper and say that you're the one that I rely on," and sometimes just sad, "my head doesn't pound with my heart, I f*** up before I even start." Musically, the songs benefit from full, fleshed-out arrangements that add to, rather than distract from, his captivating stories, with piano, banjo and drums surrounding the simple acoustic guitar riffs.

What Showalter offers throughout the album is not a musical breakthrough or reinvention of sound, but a set of stories and narratives grafted with his own personal touch, and that's what great songwriting is all about. Leave Ruin might not create much of a stir this year, but the album is a quiet gem deserving of any attention it receives.

Check out his MySpace page to hear four of the album's tracks.


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