Before Timothy Showalter issued HEAL, the emphatic 2014 album that established his band Strand of Oaks as one of the leading lights of the Philadelphia rock renaissance, he put out three other records under the SOA banner.
But those albums -- Leave Ruin (2009), Pope Killdragon (2010), and Dark Shores (2012) -- were largely acoustic, conceptual affairs that lacked the straight-to-the-point power of HEAL, a rocked-out musical missive about fighting off depression and finding a lifeline in a troubled marriage worth saving.
The Indiana-born songwriter spent much of his 20s as a schoolteacher in Wilkes-Barre as he worked on becoming a singular artist. With the all-caps HEAL, which he described as being about meeting darkness “with fists clenched,” Strand of Oaks arrived.
“It was weird because it was like my debut album, though it wasn’t,” says the 34-year-old singer and guitarist, sitting in the kitchen of the Mount Airy apartment he shares with his wife, Sue, and four cats. “But if that’s where people started, it’s a fine place to start.”
Nearly three years later, Showalter is taking the next step. Hard Love (Dead Oceans ***), out Friday, is a nine-song collection written in the makeshift studio equipped with a keyboard, laptop, and guitars a few steps from Showalter’s kitchen table. It was scheduled to bring him to Main Street Music in Manayunk for an in-store appearance on Friday, and, after two weeks of European dates, he’ll be back to open a U.S. tour at Union Transfer on March 10.
HEAL sent Strand of Oaks on its way as a featured international act. A year and a half on the road offered ample opportunity for communal, hedonistic pursuits. Another year back home writing -- with breaks to hike and swim in the Wissahickon Valley section of Fairmount Park -- gave Showalter time to reflect while immersing himself in domestic life. That tension provides the fire and frisson that lights up Hard Love.
“HEAL was a primal experience,” says Showalter, dressed in black, as always, with shoulder-length rock star hair and beard in a look inspired by his teenage headbanger hero Lemmy Kilmister. By contrast, Showalter says, the new album -- recorded in Brooklyn with producer Nicholas Vernhes -- “is what happens in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy first sees Technicolor. It’s her living in this sterile black-and-white world, and then she opens the door and sees this bright, wide-open Technicolor world. That’s basically what Hard Love is. It’s that wider spectrum she gets to experience.” He laughs.
Hard Love contains its share of heavy moments, from the title cut love song’s shifting perspective to the closing jam “Taking Acid and Talking with My Brother,” which is not about what it sounds like it should be.
But Hard Love is less clenched-fist catharsis and more the day-to-day business of being alive.
“I felt more comfortable in my skin, and I wanted the record to breathe a little bit more,” Showalter says.
His Hard Love release party at Main Street Music will be his first local appearance since a series of intimate Boot & Saddle shows in December. One night, he brought on stage both his wife and her bassist father, Bob Gryziec, who played in 1980s rock band the Buoys and who did sessions with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Growing up in Goshen, Ind., Showalter spent Saturdays hanging at the family car dealership, working as an “Aquatech” -- washing cars. A ‘Showalter Buick’ license plate hangs on the wall next to a Magnolia Electric Co. poster, the band led by Jason Molina movingly memorialized on HEAL’s “JM.”
They’re near a turntable and LP collection swelling with recent additions by 1970s dub reggae acts, like Augustus Pablo, Scientist, and Lee “Scratch” Perry. The bookshelves mix heavy Euro fiction, like Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle novels, which belong to Sue, who works as an editor in Center City, and dense nonfiction, such as Shelby Foote’s epic Civil War history, which Showalter plans to tote on tour.
Showalter excels at making music about music. HEAL’s standout was the anthemic “Goshen ’97,” about listening to Smashing Pumpkins and being inspired to write songs of your own. Hard Love’s is “Radio Kids,” a terrifically riffy ode to the airwaves about hearing a strange and wonderful world beyond the cornfields in the sound of Jonathan Richman’s voice.
He’s recounting an early 1990s time when he’d take “whatever the radio gave me, whether it was Bell Biv DeVoe or Nirvana.” He made tapes, sometimes taking years to learn the name of the artist he recorded. Hard Love is being issued on cassette as well as vinyl, and Showalter has individually hand-painted boom boxes for fan-club contest winners.
The emotional core of Hard Love is “Cry,” a gorgeous keyboard and near-falsetto ballad that wears a wounded heart on sleeve. It’s followed by “Quit It,” a stomping, rowdy love song. It peaks with its “Taking Acid” finale. Showalter doesn’t shy away from discussing how controlled substances “shifted my perspective, for the better” as he tried to learn “to not be so dramatic about everything.”
But “Taking Acid” is not about taking acid. It’s about his six-years-younger brother John’s heart suddenly stopping in 2015 at the kitchen table in Indiana.
In Philadelphia for a break between Lollapalooza and Made in America, Showalter got an urgent call from his mother. “He had cardiomyopathy. He was 26 at the time.”
After their father resuscitated John, doctors induced a coma. “It was a horror movie. He was all hooked up on life support, and then when they would take him off, his heart would fail.”
“I call the song ‘Taking Acid’ because it truly was psychedelic, because you can’t f— explain that your little brother is dying,” Showalter says. There was a 2 percent chance of John regaining consciousness, with brain damage almost certain.
The story has a happy ending. John Showalter, who works for an Indiana trucking company, made a complete recovery. And big brother Tim got to write about the survival of someone other than himself.
“I rarely love songs that I write, but I love that song,” Showalter says, revving up to a grin equal to “Talking With's” ecstatic slow burn. “It’s a celebration. It’s one of those Shawshank moments, standing in the rain. That song is just seven or eight minutes of me screaming to the galaxy, ‘Thank you for not taking him!’ ”