STRAND of OAKS – ” Erasureland ” Best Albums Of 2019

Posted: March 27, 2019 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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“Eraserland” is Strand of Oaks’ most lasting, accessible album yet, one that’s not as concerned with its own internal drama and more interested in communicating the power in dreaming up a better life.

Tim Showalter returns with Eraserland, his sixth album as Strand Of Oaks. It almost didn’t happen. As the touring behind 2017’s Hard Love was coming to a close, Showalter found himself defeated. After the wild journey from his 2014 breakthrough Heal to its follow-up, something didn’t click. Unsatisfied with his band, with the project overall, with himself, he entered into in a bout of deep depression.

Then he got a call from an old friend and a musician he’d looked up to: My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel. The other members of the group besides singer Jim James — keyboardist Bo Koster, bassist Tom Blankenship, and drummer Patrick Hallahan — wanted to offer their services as backing band for a new Oaks album. The only problem was Showalter didn’t have any songs.

He embarked on a writing retreat, secluding himself on the beaches of Wildwood, New Jersey in the dead of winter. In a few weeks, he emerged with the songs that would become Eraserland. He met the band in Louisville and they recorded the material in a matter of weeks as well.

Tim comments,

I know a lot has already been said about this record.  So I guess I will just dig right to the core.  Eraserland will forever hold such a special place in my heart, I’ve never been more proud of a group of songs, and in many ways I feel like this is my first record.  But more importantly when I listen to or think about Eraserland, I’m filled with the love of all those around me and the special people that guided me back from being so lost, to make this record a reality.  Whereas most Strand of Oaks records were made in such a solitary creative space, Eraserland was created by a community of friends and people I love so dearly.  This community also includes all of you, who are a part of this family.  I would like to thank (we can tag them here))) Carl, Bo, Tom, Patrick, Kevin, Ryan M., Jason Isbell, Emma, Lacey Guthrie, Anne (insta annegthr), Alysee, Dead Oceans, and most importantly my wife and partner Sue.  When you listen to Eraserland and if you find some connection, please know that this would not have been possible without these wonderful people in my life.  Eraserland means whatever you want it to, but for me its a place where you can be anyone you want to be, and hopefully find some peace.  I love you all very much and now we get to share these songs together.  The last line on the album is my hope for all of us, “If you believe you can be loved, you’ll outlive you’re past”.

Thank you- Tim

several of its songs are more rewarding and evocative each time you listen. And below, Showalter’s stories may provide a sort of first listen companion.

1. “Weird Ways”

As a mission statement and lead single, “Weird Ways” feels like such a perfect re-entry point. Like opening up the album with sort of a rebirth moment. Tim: In my time at the beach, which was basically a writing retreat, that was the last song I wrote. It was towards the end of my time there, before my wife and her family came, and I was breaking down my gear , then I just wrote one more song. I felt like I was in this rush to write it because I needed to get the apartment clean before her parents came. But I had one thing left I needed to say, after three weeks and many more songs than are on the record.

I wrote it so fast. It was just another song, I had no idea about its impact on my catalouge. We got to the studio, and it was kinda far down on the list. I always have my marquee songs I really like, hence my past mistakes like “Passing Out” not being on Hard Love. But then “Weird Ways” was the first song we tracked. It had this weird life, it was the underdog. The original, it was like two minutes and the refrain at the end was a four-bar “There are colors.” Since it was the last song I wrote, I think it actually encapsulated the entire experience of the album. I think I was summarizing the record, and then it’s the first song on the album. It’s like I’m calling my shot before the album happens.

“Weird Ways,” from the demo, is the least familiar on the album. Kevin Ratterman, my producer, he and I didn’t talk about it, but how we developed the arrangement on the album was like the curtain coming up. And the curtain comes up for everybody pretty much individually. You initially hear Carl’s ethereal little slide, then Bo comes in with the keyboards, Patrick comes in with the snare, and finally Tommy comes in when everyone kicks in.

It’s beautiful in a way, because yes it’s introducing their instruments, but it’s also introducing how each member individually — and this is the theme of the whole recording process — was there for me and embracing me. It starts out extremely alone, it’s just me with an acoustic sounding extremely lonely. With them and Lacey Guthrie from Twin Limb, by the end it feels like there’s 500 people in the room around me.

This was the first time [My Morning Jacket] members and I recorded together. In the midst of the tracking, I really messed up a take. And I was the worst one to mess up a take because I had very little responsibility — I was just tracking ghost vocals and rhythm guitar. So whenever I messed up when we’re tracking a six and a half minute song live, I felt really bad. Just like, “Who is the amateur in this room!? It’s your song!” But I did, I messed up.

It was my first and only deep crisis of conscience, where I had the inevitable, “What am I doing here? This is where Jim should be and … I cannot sing like Jim …” I didn’t express it to anyone else as it was happening but luckily I got over it fast. I saw things within the studio. I was communicating with one of my favorite bands in that way.

A key moment arrangement-wise in that song was the “There are colors” refrain. Originally it was a falsetto and a low part. On demo, it just wasn’t there. The song really didn’t take off until I was doing the vocals and I told Kevin “I wanna do a Liam Gallagher part.” He was like, “What does that mean!?” There was this high part and low part and then I did this middle part like “That’s what Liam Gallagher would’ve done there!” It added a heft that wasn’t there. The story that came with Eraserland’s initial announcement was that you were feeling pretty defeated, then got a call from Carl.

SHOWALTER: The worst I felt is when Carl originally contacted me. That was at the end of the Hard Love tour. I was done. I was very depressed. Unbeknownst to me, I was equating it to my music because I’d become so tied to that identity as that’s who I was. I was thinking, “It’s the band, I don’t want the band to go on anymore.” But I think I didn’t want to go on anymore. I think I was done, in a lot of ways.

So the beach happened because they all booked studio time and Bo had two weeks off from the Roger Waters tour to be with us. All of that happened, and I legitimately didn’t have songs. I love Wildwood, New Jersey, and I love it in the winter.

2. “Hyperspace Blues”

Eraserland has these towering, emotional tracks that kind of trace this journey. But, on our way, right from “Weird Ways,” we go to “Hyperspace Blues.” this song definitely seems like it’s about drugs.  I love “Hyperspace Blues” because it served such a functional purpose in my daily process at the beach. My favorite thing to do on the beach,  I would take my bike, and the beach is frozen in the winter, and I’d just ride my bike forever at night.

It’s the most freeing experience, because the Jersey Shore is so wide, and you can just ride your bike forever and I felt like a kid. I felt like I was absolutely alone in the universe. I had music on, it was pitch black, and I had no consequences — if I fell off my bike it was sand, I wasn’t going to get hit by a car. It was like hyperspace. I think that played into it a lot. That’s the song I’m most excited to play live.

How do I say it … there’s a bit of trolling on Eraserland. I’m trolling Hard Love a little bit on Eraserland. It’s deeply referential but the idea of like, “Somebody put me back together!” It’s kind of like me responding to that whole situation.

3. “Keys”

The way I hear albums is often informed by the artwork. So I hear Eraserland as taking place in this glossier place than the other albums, but also blue and nocturnal, a little bit surrealist. So it took me a bit to hear “Keys” this way, But there’s also something so poignant and universal about this sentiment, just being with your partner and saying “We’re done, let’s just get out of here together.” I think “Keys” might be the best love song I ever wrote for Sue. I’ve written a lot of love songs for her but this truly sums it up.

I really like that song because it’s chords I’ve used before, and I really didn’t want to write that song when I was playing the chords. I had a melody that was a really atypical Strand Of Oaks melody. Then I put it away and I was actually trying to hum an organ part I was going to put on, but that became that wandering melody in the verse.

We tracked vocals after the band left, in another session. It was just Kevin and I in the studio. You can hear it on the last chorus, where I say “I’ll buy us a trailer down in the Keys,” which to me is so bittersweet. I was just zooming through the vocal takes and I got to that part and I started crying. It got me, completely.

When I got to that second verse, and I choked up, and I go “Ah, sorry Kevin.” And I couldn’t see him so I go “Kevin, are you there?” I said it three times, and it turns out he was crying, too. We weren’t in the same room, couldn’t see each other, but it hit us equally as hard. Then we went to the second take, and I do break up a little bit again, and we kept it. I was happy that Kevin didn’t push me to do a more refined take in that moment.

4. “Visions”

“Visions” is one of the heavier, more harrowing songs on the album. “Visions” is a crazy song because I wrote that chorus melody before Heal. That melody has existed for like six years, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours trying to find that chorus a home. It wasn’t until I did the verse, and a two-chord for the pre-chorus … I think the song feels heroic in a way, simply because I felt so happy I finally found a place for this chorus to live.

It’s one of the few songs on the record that touches on the depression I was in. It’s interesting. I think back to a lot of the songs I wrote and “Visions” introduces something I never had before, and that’s hopelessness. For me, there’s a few lines that nail it home, to the truth. “2017 tried its best to take the magic from me.” “Magic,” that’s self-referential that’s what I say in “Goshen ’97,” “The magic began.” That’s a code word for music, and how music has saved me. I felt like the year, and all that was wrapped up in 2017 — my career, my band, the world — it was gone. The whole song is hopeless at that moment but what’s cool is the music is heroic, and I think the music saves the lyrics. The arrangement is trying to save the person who’s singing.

I was so into that arrangement. If this would’ve been Hard Love me or Heal me I would’ve added a thousand more things to that fucking song. Harmonies on the chorus. That song is begging for a guitar solo! It’s begging for a Slash to show up and step off the train tracks! .

5. “Final Fires”

Track order is so essential on Eraserland, more so than on any other record I’ve done. “Visions” … it’s a commitment to get to track 4 and end “Visions.” Then moving to “Final Fires,”. What’s cool about this song is it captures the aesthetic of the album pretty well. You think it’s going to be kinda new wave-y in the beginning with that intro, then it’s like this rollicking, breezy rock song. I’m excited for people to hear the whole record, because there are moments that are fun. This feels fun in a way that not even “Goshen ’97” did. More awareness I may have earned in my life, and understanding that every year you live you realize everyone’s as completely as fucking lost as you are and everyone has problems and there’s an enormous amount of confusion in everyone’s life. In the past, I would’ve written a whole record like, “I think I’m crazy!” And now I can sum it up in one kinda funny line in the beginning of “Final Fires,”.

6. “Moon Landing”

“Moon Landing” feels like it would’ve sat here on the album regardless, a kind of mid-album funk freakout. And you have Jason Isbell playing on it.  Jason and I go way, way back. He’s a wonderful person. I think Jason knew I was having a tough time. He reached out and was like, “If you need anything on this record let me know. I’d love to be a part of it.”

We always had that in the back of our mind, like I have Carl Broemel and then I also have the opportunity to have Jason Isbell. We were thinking of where to put him. My God, Jason plays slide guitar amazing, he could’ve done something amazing on “Keys.” We had this absolute groove song so we sent it to Jason. I kept telling Kevin, “You have no idea what he can do on a guitar.  It’s more indebted to Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” than an Allman Brothers song. It’s fucking crazy. I felt so pleased in such a tiny, tiny way, that if anyone didn’t know the depth of Jason’s playing,

Since Heal, I’ve had songs that are sort of the gravitational center of the record. “JM” was that, and “On The Hill” was that for Hard Love … and “Moon Landing,” in a different way, feels like it’s gluing things together. Especially lyrically. There’s a lot of lyrics to unravel.

I started the song with Malcolm Young, as a fan … in life, there are certain moments that are perfect. I think Malcolm Young was perfect in what he did. It’s something that cannot be emulated, it’s something about the way he played, and that’s the impact of him being gone now. No one will ever play rock ‘n’ roll rhythm guitar as flawlessly as Malcolm Young did. It’s book-ended with the last verse, with Chris Cornell. I always took a lot of pride in [having the same birthday] as him. Another monumental perfect thing, Chris Cornell’s voice.

Another Rosetta Stone moment is when I say “Bobby’s singing ‘Prophet’ with the futuristic eyes,” it’s Bob Weir singing “Estimated Prophet.” The lyrics in “Estimated Prophet” had a huge impact on the lyrics for “Moon Landing.” Chris Swanson, who started Secretly Canadian, told me the best thing ever: “Some songs are for the people, some songs are for the heads.” This is one of those for the heads, I think.

7. “Ruby”

I don’t think you’ve ever written something as effortlessly catchy and warm as “Ruby.” I loved what you said when this came out as a single. There has been nostalgia, especially on the last couple Oaks albums, but there was a pang with it. And “Ruby” is this more contented remembrance. And then there’s that refrain at the end where, like “Weird Ways,” it really strikes me as the exact sound of Strand Of Oaks playing with My Morning Jacket.

Musically, “Ruby” is probably my proudest moment, because there’s a lot of strange key-shifting. The chorus is in a different key than the verse, the refrain is in a completely different key, and it all fits together.

What really nailed it is it for a long time existed as just the chorus and verse and it was last minute when I shifted into that “Ruby, won’t you slow it down.” That, to me, along with “Keys,” is one of the prettiest moments in my career. Then the waltzy piano outro was just another idea that was on the demo, that had no connection. That was Bo — I don’t think he knew, I didn’t intend for that outro to be on the song. So we finished and he just went into it and I was like, “Whoa, whoa the song’s over!” And Bo was like, “Oh, I thought this was part of it,” so I said, “Well, now it is!” So it ends in this 6/8 time signature. Man, it was fun to put together. In four minutes there’s like five different themes put together.

8. “Wild And Willing”

After “Ruby” the album definitely goes into a sad and ruminative place for the final stretch. It begins with “Wild And Willing.” Now, you write self-referentially a lot, you write autobiographically a lot. On this particular album, I feel like there are more lyrical references to being in a band and being on tour. Is that something — compared to say, “Keys” — that you worry people aren’t going to connect with as much.

With Eraserland, there are references to band and musician and it does seem like a closed society in some ways. I kind of feel the opposite. In “Wild And Willing,” I think it does feel a lot more inviting and welcoming because, yeah, I’m referencing being in a band but the way I’m presenting the lyrics is, hopefully, a lot more universal. “Wild And Willing,” that is the one song that should not be on this record. We had this other great song we made in the studio, that’ll probably come out at some point. But I got to this point where we had recorded that song and I was doing vocals and I asked Kevin, “Can I do something just for posterity?” We had the vocal mic set up, I grabbed what turned out to be Jim’s guitar — which is beautiful, because it’s like he’s on the record in a way, this was his main acoustic at the beginning of Jacket. “Wild And Willing” is the first and only take.

9. “Eraserland”

This final one-two is the most powerful way you’ve ever ended an album, in my opinion. And this title track is a weird song. It has this synth-gospel thing going on almost, and these big breaks and this dramatic outro. It’s one of the most interesting Oaks songs, I think. “Eraserland” the song is, for anyone that knows — that’s Pope Killdragon, who’s come back after 10 years. He’s speaking to the Virgin Mary, who was the heroine of Pope Killdragon. In my head, on the beach, I thought about the world and myself and what happened in the 10 years since I wrote Pope Killdragon and I brought him back. I never thought I would. If “Visions” was hopeless, this is… It’s a dark song.

I think the song itself is like four vignettes. Some are global, some are extremely personal. It was the self-assessment moment: What would I say if this angel or patron saint came back and talked to me? And she was like, “The last time I hung out with you, you were trying to write Pope Killdragon, and then you made an anthem record, As opposed to something like “Wild And Willing,” where I just forgot about it, I was pretty adamant about not putting “Eraserland” on the record. It wasn’t called “Eraserland,” it was just this song. That should be the end of the record. “Eraserland” should be the last song, and in a way it is. The one thing that was beautiful about the song “Eraserland” is I didn’t have the name of the album until one time Sue visited us in Louisville and I told her, “I think I’m going to call it Land Of The Dead.” And she was like “…You can’t do that.” .

I do strangely say “erase” like five times on the record. We came up with “Eraserland,” and this song didn’t have a name, so I made it the title track. And with that we had that outro without any vocals. Kevin said, “You need to say one more thing in this song.” That’s when that refrain [happened], and we were very specific about how to put those words together, because it’s “I am the Eraserland,” not “I’m in the Eraserland.” It feels more powerful, it’s a declaration. I think that’s an extremely different statement.

It’s also a reference to “Goshen ’97,” “I don’t want to start all over again.” This is me saying to that, “I can start again.” I can do whatever I want. the song is strikingly beautiful and has this effect coming after all these other tracks. Then you have Emma Ruth Rundle come in, and her voice is just totally otherworldly.

When I was doing the vocals, Kevin was like, “I wanna have Emma sing on this song.” We called it the Eraserland Vibe. Emma’s around my age, and I realized maybe she was having a lot of the same feelings. I saw so much of myself in her. Those that know Emma know she can sing huge. And I love that both of us were singing in our lower register.

10. “Forever Chords”

“Forever Chords” is this gigantic epilogue. Sonically speaking, it brings in the MMJ element one more time because it reminds me of “Dondante” a bit, this spectral and sprawling thing, big but not loose, with like an orchestrated build. It’s just two chords, C to E minor. Those are forever chords. Music is my language. Forever chords, that means more than C to E minor. I say it in the song. “Major to minor in a slow beating pulse.” That should be on my gravestone, that’s my mission statement in life. There’s so much to unravel with that song. I think the song explains it. I don’t want it to end. I think I’ve felt that way my whole life,

I think another gravestone lyric is “If you believe you can be loved/ You’ll outlive your past.” If I never write a lyric again… There is a lot of finality to “Forever Chords,” which is scary as a songwriter. Did I just do it at 36? Is that it for me? Because I just summed up what I thought for 36 years.

Eraserland is out now on Dead Oceans Records.

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