Strand of Oaks’ In Heaven is dramatic, the songs serious and filled with anthemic hooks. Band mastermind Tim Showalter channels ’90s angst, but also reaches back to the 1980s for a little bit of chime.
Strand of Oaks is singer-songwriter-guitarist Showalter, plus a band. His music began as folk, but his albums have consistently built upon that sound. The folk underpinnings are present on all of In Heaven’s songs, though. They’re held together with piano and vocal melodies, but as you use your imagination to strip out the decorative musical elements, you can still hear the solid frames of an acoustic song. There are interesting touches, like keyboard and violin, but Showalter puts the song upfront.
On “Galacticana,” a folksy ballad, the track bobs on a strum that might not actually be audible. Instead piano dances around drums that insert a rhythmic skip into the tune. The chorus, “I don’t want to drag you down,” is beautiful, recalling The Rolling Stones’ soaring “Wild Horses.” A simple, distorted guitar solo gives the track some grit, establishing it as something other than classic rock, also aided by a brief chunky guitar riff that lifts the song, for a moment, in a ’90s kind of way.
Showalter doesn’t hide from that era of music, featuring James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins on “Easter,” which includes wonderfully abstract lyrics: “And she’s my Easter / Watch me as I fall / To the Lincoln Highway where I was born.” The flip side of that abstraction is “Jimi and Stan,” a tune about Showalter’s beloved cat meeting Jimi Hendrix in heaven: “Jimi and Stan in heaven/ Making friends going to shows / In my dreams I just hope they’re having a blast.” Showalter mirrors the earnestness of the lyrics in his vocals, using a sing-song cadence that would sound child-like if not for his relentless adult intensity.
While the Strand of Oaks songs have a familiar straight-forwardness, Showalter isn’t afraid to play with sounds. “Sunbathers” uses shiny and delayed guitar to craft tones that would fit right in on U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. “Sister Saturn” has spacey synth and a keyboard solo that sounds like keytar. But “Carbon,” which falls between those two in the track order, is led with haunting fiddle courtesy of Scott Moore, creating a sound like R.E.M., another ’80s band.
In Heaven is more than touchstones from other musical times, though. Showalter pulls from different sonic eras, but his voice is so strong and unique that Strand of Oaks never sounds derivative. The various influences are audible, but Showalter is able to put a distinctive, and dramatic, stamp on them.