Strand of Oaks is the moniker created by Timothy Showalter, a 38-year old Indiana-born musician (and former Hebrew school teacher) who broke onto the scene in 2009 with album Leave Ruin.
I crossed paths with Showalter’s Oaks project in 2014, a year in which Tim’s album HEAL was a constant topic of conversation around indie rock circles. This was for good reason, as HEAL remains a desperately beautiful, screamingly raw, deeply delving insight into the deathly horror of mental, personal breakdown and the resurrection of finding the healing hope and reasons to still go on.
HEAL also was speaking a lot to what I was feeling then. I had recently enjoyed being introduced to Dinosaur Jr’s brilliant J Mascis only to find his enigmatic guitar playing on “Goshen 97”, while the aching of loss I felt for Songs: Ohia musician Jason Molina after his tragic death at 39 was perfectly eulogized in the rattling “JM”. Even bonus track covers of Ryan Adams’ “My Wrecking Ball” and The National’s “Pink Rabbits” fit in line with other artists that obsessed me at the time.
HEAL is a true “complete” album without a misstep in an era that needs a lot more of them. That song on the radio may stay with you a day or a week; a true album is a staple of life.
I also empathized with Showalter nearly giving up the craft until fate intervened in the form of My Morning Jacket guitar-slinger Carl Broemel (leading to the recording of the gorgeous 2019 Oaks revival record Eraserland). I’ve long loved working in creative writing, but on more than one occasion I’ve felt the compulsion to quit based on anxiety, crippling self-criticism, and thinking I had nothing left to say anyone cared to hear. It’s connecting to hear someone singing and persevering through what I felt and what I still deal with mentally today.
Someone being real.
Tim Showalter is one of those musicians talented enough to consistently bring that baggage of emotion out for some recording booth catharsis, and that continues with the lead single from the upcoming Strand of Oaks album In Heaven, due out October 1st.”Galacticana” has an uplifting swing in mentions of joy and ecstacy, but like storm clouds amidst summer sun it also dwells on the human fear and insecurity that lies beneath those gold rays.
But instead of that worrying “I don’t wanna drag you down” suggestive earworm on this track, that reveal of vulnerability instead feels like a badge of kinship. It’s a powerful bonding connection between Showalter and his listeners, which is more than can be said for a lot of musical projects.
For example, take a band I’ve enjoyed a long time who recently dropped a record with a producer I greatly respect. Despite the anticipated team up, the majority of this band’s new tracks just felt lifeless and meandering. But sometimes that’s just it, you can book the best producer behind a great veteran band with a handful of songs, but when there’s no soul in it…. you’re just ironing an empty shirt.
Not so with Strand of Oaks. If “Galacticana” is any indication, In Heaven is already a dark horse contender for 2021’s Best Of list.
The Prince Estate recently announced their latest foray into unveiling more of the legendary rocker’s treasure trove of unreleased creative material. Entitled Welcome 2 America and due out in July, the 12-track LP (recorded in 2010) was initially slated to accompany a then-ongoing tour of the same name. However, for reasons known only to the artist himself, Welcome 2 America was scrapped; bound instead to gather dust on the shelves of the much-spoken-of Prince Vault.
The lead single (and title track) is perhaps at first listen not the type of promotional introduction one would typically expect. The 5+ minute funky slink plays almost like jazz club improvisation, with Prince providing a spoken monologue against the gorgeous vocals of trio Shelby J, Elisa Dease, and Liv Warfield. Lyrically, the single confronts themes like the dangers of escalating technology, endless greed amongst the aristocrats, and oppressive societal rule, issues that have only grown worse and more toxic since Prince wrote and spoke these words to tape.
That seems to tap into the broader mindset of where this posthumous album will dwell. To quote the Estate’s Welcome 2 America press release:
“(The album is) a powerful creative statement that documents Prince’s concerns, hopes and visions for a shifting society, presciently foreshadowing an era of political division, disinformation, and a renewed fight for racial justice”
This certainly isn’t new territory for His Royal Badness, as his albums Purple Rain and Sign O’ The Times most famously highlighted themes including fears of nuclear war, the AIDS crisis, and trying to survive while the world is falling to pieces. Even Prince’s final studio album Hit n Run Phase Two opens with “Baltimore”, a rock’d up ode for peace following the 2015 death of 25-year old Black man Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police officers.
So it seems appropriate that even from beyond the grave Prince has more statements to make that fit into the mood of our modern times. And while I have pondered at length just what he might have thought of his Estate releasing this recording and several others since his passing in 2016, the facts are these: Prince put no plans in place for the future of his creative works and didn’t seem to care what might happen to it all.
As a result, I just want to hear the music. Ordinarily I seek to respect the wishes of the artist and creator first and foremost, but with no knowledge of that and the mythical whisper of the Prince Vault coming to call… its time to just enjoy these little musical feasts as the treat that they are.
Prince was a once in a lifetime talent; hearing more his thought process in this world is a good thing.
The world of music is much like anything else when it comes to overall activity and how it relates to the time of year. January is usually pretty far removed within the doldrums of quiet, but luckily the pace starts to positively shift and accelerate once February gets a head of steam going.
And luckily for those of you who count yourselves as OTBEOTB readers, that means more features to peruse!
For today’s commentary, we return to artist Randi Fay, who’s on the cusp of releasing her concept album Intuition February 20th. Previously I evaluated the title track from the upcoming LP, now its time to take the vitals of its sibling single “Firefly” to get more of a sense of just what Fay’s concept is all about.
In comparing the two songs off the bat, the musical approach of “Firefly” certainly fits within the same melodic framework and audio-centric story teased at by “Intuition”. It has a fresh, exuberant rush of boisterous, retro 80’s layering mixed into a swelling pulse reminiscent of swirling K-pop, all while still maintaining a unique dance-floor identity.
Don’t let that immediately upbeat nature fool you into thinking this endeavor is only about fun however. Beneath that danceable, rhythmic frenzy lies a sobering lyrical commentary that attempts to discover what’s real and genuine in a world dominated by Instagram filters, like quantities, and ego-boosting smoke and mirrors.
All in all, the contrast between the two opposing sides makes for the best metaphor to truly send the point across home plate.
Much like the song “Intuition”, “Firefly” also has a strong sense for big, constellation-soaring hooks as well as easily ingratiating charm. Fans certainly won’t walk away disappointed.
It’s now the month of February, which is right about the time we Northeast folk can JUST begin thinking about digging out from under winter’s stern, unflinching grasp. And unfortunately, while we are making some progress prying up the season’s fingers, the mood in the air remains an inflexibly grey, lethargic blandness.
Thankfully we have the fiery energy of bands like Mohawk Bends to help melt away some of those frigid blues. The indie rockers recently dropped the sprawling, thrashing hammer of single “See What You Do To Me”, which soars on a wave of arpeggio-ed guitars, massively fun hooks, and confidence oozing out of every pore.
It’s the kind of song at first listen that demonstrates strong musicianship without needing to take itself too seriously. And that’s long been one of the beauties of straight up, not-grown-in-a-test-tube rock n roll. While I can appreciate the next clever set of poetry set to intricate melody as much as the next music listener, sometimes it hits straighter to the point to take screwed-over heartbreak, add a teaspoon of nervy, flexing guitars cranked up to 10, and let the passion and talent take care of the rest.
This Austin-based outfit manages to pull that all together and then some with “See What You Do To Me”, which blends together sounds from the likes of the Arctic Monkeys, Collective Soul, The Whigs and Oasis while still maintaining the nature of its own identity. And that’s one of the most important things to achieve here, when you can make a listener come back based on your approach to musical creativity, not because you just sound like group x, y or z.
The realm of rock is always in need of more worthy ambassadors, and thankfully Mohawk Bends seem up to the challenge with a track like this in their arsenal.
Jonray and Barbara are a couple from Texas who make up the synth-pop duo Moonray. The pair recently released a music video for a sweet new single called “No Stranger to Love”, which possesses both a sprightly bubble in its rhythmic stride as well as an easily-affable ear-worm of a song structure.
As pop tunes go, the pair have a clever knifing knack for the genre as the track is filled with the exuberance of a Jukebox the Ghost with a touch of The Postal Service’s modern sprawl.
This tale of weathering the storm of a reeling romance in just 3 minutes, 20 seconds has an added, non-scientific chemistry as well when you consider the connection of its narrators. Maybe that’s just some type of coupling-induced placebo effect talking at this moment. Regardless, Barbara and Jonray give off an easy, familiar comfort with each other in this tandem as they meld and intertwine seamlessly within the spreading arrangement.
Try NOT to get it stuck in your head, I dare you.
View the lyric video below for “No Stranger to Love”, which is an understated yet equally perfect swipe-right match that wins over the heart of this song.
A big part of the vibe of this track are its synthesizers, which helps spark an infectious beat that carries the melodic backbone. To further elaborate on just how they incorporate these instruments into their music, I will now turn it over to the duo in Moonray, who were ever-so kind enough to tell us a bit more about it, and how “No Stranger to Love” came to be.
Being fans of Prince, Madonna, David Bowie, The Human League, Depeche Mode, amongst others, we always felt that synthesizers were magical, creating soundscapes of unlimited sonic capabilities.
When we first started playing together, synthesis was somewhat new to us. Our first live set up included a Moog bass synth and a Dave Smith polysynth. Once we got our hands on some knobs, the curiosity started endless possibilities of how we could create music with synthesizers.
We started researching and learning about other synths and what some of the greats used. We dived deep into some of the synth pioneers including Laurie Spiegel, Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim, and Bob Moog (who Jonray shares a birthday with). Did you know that synthesizers weren’t commonly used in pop music until the early ’60s? The first synthesizer, which was called the Telharmonium, was invented around the late 1890s and was enormous, weighing around 200 tons. Let’s just say this began a small synthesizer obsession and we began saving up to buy some of the iconic reissues that have been released, such as the OB6 and the Model D.
We later found out about “Switched-On” here in Austin. Filled with many vintage and new synthesizers, we decided to pop in for a visit and by Golly! There it was, right there in front of us, an Oberheim OB-Xa (pictured below) from the ’80s, which was used in Prince’s “Purple Rain” album. It is also most commonly known in Van Halen’s “Jump.” Instantly recognizable magic. After listening and playing with it for an hour in downtown Austin, we were blown away and knew we had to have it. We rushed home, gathered every piece of gear that we could let go of in order to trade in for it. This began a wormhole.
Welcoming the new synth into our home, we immediately wanted to compare it with the reissue OB6. We found them to be extremely different and although today we still love the OB6 and use it for live shows, the vintage synthesizer seems to have a lot more charisma than the newer ones. Maybe it’s the fact that they naturally detune more because they didn’t have the advanced technology we have today with such precise control. They are imperfectly perfect. Our desire even lead us to a 1,200 mile journey to Wisconsin in our van to pick up an extremely rare Prophet 10, pictured below.
We do enjoy having both worlds just as a painter likes to have color options ranging from warm to cool. In our studio, having access to both vintage and modern synthesizers offers us the best of both worlds. There are so many different ways we use our synthesizers—as a bass, a drum, a ripping lead, an orchestral symphony, an arpeggiated sequence, a white/pink noise mimicking wind or ocean, there are endless possibilities. That’s what makes it so much fun. Sometimes we like to turn on multiple synthesizers and let them drone for meditation.
One of our favorite things to do is to travel and write some arrangements via midi with a small midi keyboard such as the Yamaha Reface and Arturia Keystep. We then bring the data back into our home studio and that’s where the real fun begins. We are able to send that data to our choice of various keyboards and sculpt the sound with both hands on the knobs. Some of our synthesizers like the CS-80 do not have midi so, therefore, we usually require four hands, one will play while the other sculpts. We do rely on the reissues for our live performance but primarily use vintage synthesizers and drum machines in the studio.
“No Stranger to Love” was created part in studio and part on the road over a period of a year. We wrote the music for it and revisited later on adding the lyrics. It began with drums and bassline using a TR-808 drum machine, a Moog Model D bass and a Dave Smith Prophet 10 Poly Synth. Although it began that trio, it ended up having 3 iconic drum machines: the Linn Drum (Madonna, Prince, The Human League), TR-808 on tons of hits and Oberheim DX Stretch. We ended up using the Moog Voyageur on the bass, Poly synths included: Jupiter 8, Oberheim OB-8, Jupiter 6, Roland VP-330 Vocoder, Roli (modern software-based instrument), and Rickenbacker 350 V63 Electric Guitar. The guitar was tracked with a line 6 Helix guitar processor outputted into a small 8’ Supro guitar tube amp mic’d with an SM57 and an ELAM 251. Vocals were cut with a Neumann U67 and a Telefunken C12.
Ultimately at the end of the day, you don’t need expensive gear or synthesizers to create a great song, they’re just tools and it’s about what you do with them. We even like to have options such as old Casios priced at $30 off of reverb.com. Even Korg makes an awesome analog like the Korg Minilogue that’s both affordable and amazing. It’s a favorite travel companion due to its size. That being said, as business owners of both Moonray and Moon Lab Studios, we are grateful to be able to offer these unique historical pieces to our clients and keep on creating music we can share. Some of our favorites include The CS-80, ARP 2600, Memory Moog LAMM Mod, Prophet 10, Matrix 12, Jupiter 8, and the modern ones: Moog One and The Schmidt, modern classics.
Instrumental-based music is a fascinating case study that really exposes the true nuts and bolts of a song and how it functions from a dictionary A-to-Z.. And that all gets started with the group’s players. Because for every high-power vocalist and scene-chewing frontman holding down the spotlight, there’s guys (and girls) playing pivotal roles like drummer, bassist and guitar player out there excavating their own bits of melodic truth.
While Robert Plant will always be Robert Plant, it certainly didn’t hurt to have Jimmy Page and the rest of Zeppelin around making sure the whole rocking production didn’t go sliding off one big crashing, musical cliff.
By letting the instruments handle the “singing”, I feel as though that grants a greater window into the true artistry gifted musicians present in their work. It’s a lot of time, attention, detail and PRACTICE to be good at the sound that you play and aspire to put out into the world. Then, once that happens, its the job of fans like myself to witness as much of it as possible and rave about it in writeups like this. As any good diehard does of course.
Luckily I have that privilege once again with the group I present you now: Dog Drive Mantis with the music video for their new single “Volta”, premiering right here on OTBEOTB.
While I must admit at initial introduction the band’s rather heavy-metal-sounding (and awesome) name and song title had me thinking of a slightly different sound, what I discovered left me impressed.
“Volta” begins as a dreamy, humming psychedelic lullaby as the band starts to settle into their groove. The track then proceeds to dip into moody, rising rock, Dave Clark 5 jazz-isms aided by some stellar saxophone lines, and a dipping, darting pace that keeps the track’s ultimate vision fun and excitingly upbeat. The boys in DDM seem to have a tight, well-honed chemistry together as well as they handle all the song’s rhythmic twists and turns with ease and spread a wealth of influences out on the table while doing it.
And when it comes to the video, while there’s still something to be said in art for productions in music, sometimes the best thing is simply being able to witness the live performance, unadorned. Getting to see those slivers of a show’s intimacy and/or bravado as though you’re right there in the room with that vibe. It’s also a sign that the talent you’re hearing isn’t staged or endlessly studio enhanced to sell a digital single. It’s a real, spiritual thing wrought from hard work and the love to create art.
So if you haven’t already, check out the electricity of Dog Drive Mantis and how it sparkles here. You won’t regret watching them go to work.
Singer-songwriter Stephen Babcock makes a fresh return with new music in just a little less than two weeks on June 28th in the form of upcoming single “Fight I Need”. The one-off is the followup to Babcock’s exceptional 2018 EP “Fiction”, and represents yet another linear step ahead in the development of the musician’s sound.
Material like “Fiction” and Babcock’s prior 2016 LP “Said & Done” largely felt most at home in a stripped down, coffeehouse format allowing the upfront intimacy of the moments to flow cleanly off the acoustic guitar strings. “Fight I Need” doesn’t exactly lose that well-shined sensibility for the landscape. Rather, it just surrounds it with an added edge of slinky organ work, trailing harmonies, and the bright punch of electric guitar fills racing right out of the melodic gateway.
That auditory kiss with a fist makes for a fitting companion to the track’s lyrical energy, which takes the notion of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” and riffs on it as a way to describe a desire for a relationship’s emotional toil. And indeed, either experience feels akin to 10 rounds in the boxing ring, with equal amounts of stamina needed just to outlast the conflict.
You can see Stephen live just after “Fight I Need” comes out at New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 2 for a release show June 29th at 9pm!
Today it’s my pleasure to release the premiere of “So American”, a brand new music video from the band Owen-Glass. This is a cover the group did of a song originally written and performed by Portugal. The Man off their 2011 album In The Mountain In The Cloud.
Portugal’s version is a bouncy, psychedelic joy-rave somewhere between The Flaming Lips “Do You Realize?” and The Kinks. But while Owen-Glass’ take may enter the starting gate acoustically similar to the original, it proceeds to lean away from building up and chooses instead to embrace a more bare-boned folk edge.
The video takes hold of a similar strategy as there are a few mixing visuals of the band, but nothing that takes away from the mood and strength of the performance. The upfront intimacy of the moment feels very much like an installment of NPR’s “Tiny Desk” series, which further lays vulnerable “So American” and its lyrical critiques of hypocrisy and dysfunction in these United States.
For a song that debuted in 2011, those themes almost feel more relevant from where we sit today in 2019. But without any further insight from me here’s the video from “So American”, as well as a quote from Owen-Glass singer-songwriter Kelly Wayne Conley on why they chose to cover the track.
“We wanted to sort of pay tribute to some of the songwriters and bands that had a major impact on us, and John Gourley was an obvious standout. Portugal. The Man’s story is really special to us, because we followed them from the very beginning and now, after more than a decade of grinding on the road, promoting real, soulful art, those guys have finally gotten their due.
It’s a testament to the demand that still exists for real music, y’know. Like, these are artists in a universal sense, practicing their craft—using real instruments and building out cohesive projects that have a clear, artistic message by and for the common man.”We chose ‘So American’ because it really fits with who we are as a band, and we feel like it translates well in our sort of folky Americana style…
The message in ‘So American’ cuts right to the core of the culture we grew up in—seeing everything—politics, religion, whatever—through this American lens, and all of John’s songs pushed us to view the world differently and find a new level of empathy and even affected our spiritual awareness in those formative adolescent years. That’s not something you get from just any song by just any band. It’s really a special thing. I guess, in a way, our performing this song is our way of saying thank you to John, Zach and the rest of the guys for enriching our lives with their art.”-Kelly Wayne Conley
British Columbia singer-songwriter Kuri recently released a video for his single “Human Nature”, a cut from an EP with the same title. Before I break down the visuals a little bit, this is my first exposure to Kuri’s work and plenty needs to be said for this song as well.
“Human Nature” is a gorgeously delicate, intricately woven patchwork quilt of airy folk that begins in a rustling whisper of leafy harmonies and culminates in sunshine-washed waves of strings and percussion. My first thoughts immediately fly to Damien Rice’s 2014, often-cinematic My Favourite Faded Fantasy for the song having that same pastoral ambition (as well as a knack for words of gut-dropping melancholy slipped within the breaths of the melody).
That lyrical introspection is given life in vivid illustration via the video for “Human Nature”, which captures the thin-railed frailty the title hints toward. We seem to be witness to an almost typical whirlwind of a romance in this story, but not is all as the perfectly arranged scene seems. A tender embrace includes a lost, rigid look into the distance. Moments of connection are sought with a passion, but fall apart like dreams become smoke become the unrelenting reality of one person who just can’t let release the unattainable.
But, as Kuri’s words fall out so appropriately, “it’s human nature to need some impeccable force”. Sometimes we’re that Jim Carrey character from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind simply refusing to forget a mountainous presence no matter how much we try to erase it. Or how it might lead to our own self-destruction. And much like the film, the visual’s end remains open… uncertain.. flawed…. yet still willing to fight even if only to end in doom.
Swedish singer-songwriter JANOS recently released a new single entitled “Zero” that grooved its way into my ears this week. Much like this month’s forthcoming shift into May, the summer-teasing, synth-drenched anthem of the track is an appropriately upbeat, well-timed recipe to kick off the occasion. Especially as we begin to shift from the gloomy days of dull grey to the radiant rays of a new time of the season.
The lyrical mood of “Zero” reflects that same shiny, glass half full look as it tackles the negativity of people and how to not let them bring you down in pursuing your passion. And indeed it quickly becomes difficult to remain in a subdued state of mind as the song exudes a buoyant, Rachel Platten pump-your-fist mood that perceives how to rise above instead of getting dragged below. “Zero” has an infectious dance hall sheen reminiscent of Terence Trent D’Arby while still maintaining an organic heart and meaning beneath the layers that’s akin to a musician like Joseph Arthur.
It’s that fusion of funky yet defiantly honest that sets JANOS apart here. What really struck me is that while he does lean more heavily electronic on the track, there are still winding guitar lines and the gentle keen of violin keeping the orchestration from flying too heavily into the 1’s and 0’s.
So go get in your car on a beautiful sunny day, pull onto a highway or long country road, and throw this on with the windows fully rolled down and the miles streaming out behind your wheels. “Zero” deserves to be in a playlist with some horsepower.