Following his critically adored fourth album HEAL in 2014, Timothy Showalter (aka Strand of Oaks) bares his teeth on the followup Hard Love, shedding his folk and folk-rock designation for a bluesy, grungy effort that's firmly and unabashedly rock'n'roll. It's rough around the edges but still soft, sensitive and introspective where it matters.
While HEAL was a brave personal journey through Showalter's harrowing past and how it shaped him, his latest is a reckoning with worries and shortcomings now, in the present tense. Showalter searches for a balance between an on-the-road lifestyle of self-indulgent pleasures and that which he owes to those he holds dear; as such, Hard Love is a fitting combination of uplifting declarations, sombre introspection and ne'er-do-well rambunctiousness
"Hard Love" and "Radio Kids" are fine pieces of crackling Americana rock, as Showalter's voice soars in a rich, old-tyme twang that singlehandedly gives the album half its heart. Soon after, a new, grittier Strand of Oaks comes along: "Everything" is a sinister-sounding love song for the hopelessly romantic outlaw; "On the Hill," a noisy and dazing listen, documents a psychedelic epiphany at an Australian music festival. He's nixed much of the post-punk synth found on HEAL and pushed the grungy guitars further into overdrive, throwing in some classic-rock showmanship for good measure on the Rolling Stones-esque "Rest of It."
Some of the album's finest moments come just in time to save it from its most plodding ones, as when "Salt Brothers" breaks from its long, creeping verses into its rapturous chorus: "Make it good, make it real, make it true." By its end, as Showalter revisits the near-fatal cardiac arrest of his brother on the candidly titled "Taking Acid and Talking to My Brother," the album slowly burns out like the last dying embers of a cigarette flicked onto the side of a highway from a speeding car. Showalter reaches his most vulnerable, though, on the soft, barren and serene "Cry," singing in a most delicate falsetto over a graceful piano backing.
Written by a person whose conscience seems to keep him from having too much fun, Hard Love is a conflicted yet summarily good record that breathes new life into good ol' rock'n'roll. (Dead Oceans)