First things first: I have known Tim Showalter, who is Strand Of Oaks, for ages, and our parents are still neighbors. In fact, last year at Christmas, Tim’s parents brought my parents cookies. They were delicious, but in no way influenced this review. The fact of the matter is that HEAL is an incredible album. Things start with “Goshen ‘97,” a scorcher of a song that will be my summer jam, thanks primarily to guest guitarist J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr). From there, however, the sound tends to mellow and diversify. Throughout the album I could hear Vangelis, Editors, Bruce Springsteen, M83, and Neil Young. While the opener is guitar-focused, the rest of the album tends to rely heavily (but not exclusively) on synths and keyboards, more reminiscent of Strand Of Oaks’ last album, Dark Shores. There is a break from that sound at the start of the B-side on the LP with the slow-burning guitar rocker, “JM,” a tribute to the late Jason Molina. The last four songs go back and forth between a reflective sound and a few more guitar-fronted tunes (“Mirage Year” has a primal scream and explosive guitar meltdown and “For Me” is a foot-stomping, fist-raising jam). Lyrically, the songs can be intense. While “Goshen ‘97” is about Tim discovering music in his parents’ basement in our hometown in 1997, other songs deal with the tension in his marriage and the attempt to restore it after his lack of attention to his wife and her infidelity. There’s no blame or anger at her, there’s no wallowing in the misery of his failures: everything is just what it is. Tim’s opened up and is sharing. The subject matter can be forceful and emotionally moving, but, ultimately, reassuring as Tim proclaims in the closer, that he’ll “wait for love.” The album works because the emotional vulnerability is matched by the weight of the music. That being said, Tim seems musically conflicted; he’s someone who loves both synths and guitars. There’s a bit of both on here and it’s all good, but given my tastes and interests, I’d love to see him write an entire album of songs that are just rockers; heavy guitars, and his black metal influences (yes, he’s a fan of the genre) funneled through his singer/songwriter sensibilities. (Perhaps something like “Giant’s Despair” off of Pope Killdragon, but more fleshed out.) As it stands, this is a great and highly recommended album—easily in my top five for the year—but I’m also interested in seeing Strand Of Oaks continue to push themselves, sonically.  –Todd Taylor (Dead Oceans)

 –kurt (Dead Oceans)