Strand Of Oaks
From the first bars of HEAL, the exhilarating melodic stomp of "Goshen '97" puts you right into Tim Showalter's fervent teenage mindset. We find him in his family's basement den in Goshen, Indiana, feeling alienated but even at 15 years old, believing in the alchemy and power of music to heal your troubles. "The record is called HEAL, but it's not a soft, gentle healing, it's like scream therapy, a command, because I ripped out my subconscious, looked through it, and saw the worst parts. And that's how I got better." HEAL embodies that feeling of catharsis and rebirth, desperation and euphoria, confusion and clarity. It is deeply personal and unwittingly anthemic.
Showalter was on tour, walking back to his hotel on a mild autumn night in Malmo, Sweden, when he first felt the weight of the personal crisis that would ignite him to write HEAL. "It was a culmination of pressure," Showalter recalls. "My marriage was suffering, I'd released a record I was disappointed in, I didn't like how I looked or acted...so I'd gone on tour, I was gone about two years! I didn't take time to think about failure, but I knew I was going deeper and deeper...I was thinking, I have this life, but it's not my life, I haven't done it right..."
When Showalter returned, he wrote 30 songs in three weeks, a process that proved difficult, but cathartic and at times even invigorating. Previous Strand Of Oaks records were more skeletal, raw examples of folk-rooted Americana with occasional rock and electronic currents, that have now come to the fore. HEAL's sound is a bold new beginning, a thrilling full-tilt sound that draws on Showalter's love of '70s, '80s and '90s rock and pop, with the singer and guitarist playing the intense valedictory confessor. "It's sad but it sounds like a celebration, like I'm crying and laughing and sticking both middle fingers in the air all at the same time."
Crucial to HEAL's scaling-the-walls of sound was the man who Showalter chose to mix the record, the stellar alt-rock icon John Congleton. Showalter also re-connected with Ben Vehorn, synth expert and studio engineer extraordinaire, and Verhorn's drummer pal Steve Clements who provides HEAL's thunderous, sinewy drive. Songs such as "Shut In", "Plymouth" and "Woke Up To The Light" have a classic construction and mood, recalling '70s power-pop/ballads and the melodic, yearning ache of Big Star's late, great Chris Bell. Many of the songs on HEAL reveal an electronic undercarriage and towering drums that push the album's wired dynamic to its stretching point, especially on "For Me", which expertly bridges the album's twin decades of influences. And if "Goshen '97" recalls the molten energy of Dinosaur Jr, that actually is J Mascis on lead guitar.
Title track "Heal" climaxes with Showalter's fabulously brazen guitar solo, electronically tweaked for maximum impact. Despite the initials, the album's smouldering seven-minute epic "JM" is not a Mascis tribute, but to the late Jason Molina, about having his music as comfort no matter how bad things get.
Which brings us to another crisis, this time much more serious and immediate. HEAL was scheduled for mixing on December 26, 2013. Driving on the freeway on Christmas Day, Showalter and his wife hit a patch of black ice and crashed their car head on into a semi-truck, and were very fortunate to walk away with their lives. Showalter suffered a, "pretty severe," head trauma, "which affected me much more than I realized at the time." Fearing delays, Showalter didn't let Congelton know about it, so the mixing session went ahead. "Being on the verge of death, and my thoughts being so closely tied to that, changed the album's direction," Showalter claims. "Together, we pushed it toward a much more cathartic sound that forces the listener to where I was at that exact moment, somewhere between almost dying and being absolutely fearless."
HEAL is not just a saviour for its creator, but for anyone who needs reminding of music's ability to heal, or just thrill. Showalter is taking out a full band to play, and finally, the kid who wanted to be a rock star at 21 might get his chance. Finally, he and Strand Of Oaks have much to celebrate.
Christopher Denny has a voice that will stop you in your tracks; a fervent Orbison meets Dylan tenor that fills his songs with a tremendous emotional pressure. It's the voice of a Southern choirboy who attended the church of alcohol, drugs and self-destruction in a failed attempt to deal with his inner pain and conflicts. He has a gift for infusing simple words with raw sentiment and marrying them to haunting melodies that immediately capture your attention. "The album was inspired by my struggles," Denny says. "The moments in my life that caused me the most hurt and brought me the most beauty. The songs deal with the self-loathing, fear and thoughts of inadequacy we all struggle with, something I call soft suicide."
The music on "If The Roses Don't Kill Us," his Partisan Records debut, is just as gripping as Denny's lyrics; a blend of pre-country Southern music, folk, rock, gospel and singer/songwriter impulses, a style Denny calls Arkansas Soul. The album's crisp, clean arrangements combine Denny's acoustic finger picking with subtle touches of electric guitar, pedal steel and a solid rhythm section. It took one month to record the final version of the album, made with a mix of musicians from Denny's band and A-List studio players. It is the end result of a process that saw some of the songs being recorded three different times over the course five or six years.
When Denny made his debut, "Age Old Hunger," he was fighting his dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs. "I started drinking young, but not as young as some," Denny says. "It's a southern tradition," he adds with a touch of bitter humor. "When I made that album, I didn't want to do overdubs. I wanted the band to play every part exactly the way I'd written it. The songs were angry, without understanding or maturity. When it was done, I got strung out. I couldn't even look at my guitar for a long time, but now I'm clean and grateful for the opportunities Partisan has given me."
"I saw Chris perform in the back of a club in New York in 2006," says Tim Putnam, Partisan Records' co-founder. "He had the kind of timeless, ethereal voice you seldom hear. There's a sad, beautiful rhythm and poetry in his music that's hard to wrap my head around. When I started the label, I searched him out and we made an album in upstate NY with versions of some of the songs on "Roses." Chris was a mess. Although the album had some incredible moments, it was put aside. Chris went on a massive personal decline and we lost contact. In 2010, when he was putting his life back together, he got in touch. He was in recovery and we made "If The Roses Don't Kill Us." In the process, Chris and his music experienced a rebirth."
Denny was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. As long as he can remember, he wanted to be a singer. "There's a home video of me playing Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Gimme Three Steps' when I was four years old," Denny recalls. "I was dressed up in a cowboy hat and boots with my shirt tucked in, walking around like a grown man with a guitar around my neck. I loved country music and I knew there was a special place out there for me.
"My grandfather got me my first real guitar, showed me a few chords and told me to develop my own voice. He told me nobody could stop me if I really wanted success. My first time on stage was in front of 1,900 people at a ninth grade school assembly." The crowd reaction was favorable; Denny's path was set.
At home, things weren't going as well. "There was a lot of poverty, insanity and self-destruction. I was never taught how to take care of myself. I barely lived through my childhood." At 12, Denny's aunt and uncle adopted him. They encouraged his musical talent and songwriting. "I had a neighbor who taught me how to make bar chords. That's all I needed to started writing songs."
After high school, Denny met a band called Parachute Woman. They morphed into Chris Denny and The Old Soles, the group that backed Denny on "Age Old Hunger." After the album was released, Denny left town. "I was using and the band got serious too fast; it was too much to handle. I got on a train and went to stay with my sister in California."
Denny cleaned up, returned to Little Rock and put together The Natives, a group composed of high school friends. "We did a tour, but I was controlling things with drugs and alcohol. When that didn't work, I fell apart again."
In 2008, Denny moved to Little Rock to take care of his father who was dying of Hepatitis C and cirrhosis. By 2011, Denny adds, "My wife and I were using, living harder than he did at our age. I knew I had to do something." Meanwhile, Marlboro Cigarettes licensed "Roller Coaster" and "God's Height," songs Denny cut with The Natives, for their website. "They sent me a check for 20,000 dollars. I told my wife we could use the money to get clean or die. We got clean."
As he was putting his life back together, Denny reconnected with Tim Putnam of Partisan Records and began work on "If The Roses Don't Kill Us." When the album was finished, Putman said he wouldn't release it until Denny had been clean for six months. With that milestone passed, Denny's performing again, taking it one day at a time. "At this point in my life I've realized it's more productive to approach my problems by writing songs about them."
"If The Roses Don't Kill Us" was made with Grammy-winning producer Dave Sanger (Asleep at the Wheel) and his partners PJ Herrington and Jay Reynolds. They created a relaxed atmosphere in the studio that gave Denny's vocals a sharp, visceral presence. The album opener, "Happy Sad" sets the stage for all that follows. When Denny strums a minor chord and sings the word "sad," you're pulled into his world of intense melancholy.