Strand of Oaks Eraserland is an Essential Visit


Strand of Oaks – Eraserland

Let’s get it out of the way: Eraserland is a career-defining record from Strand of Oaks. That’s saying a lot, as the project from Tim Showalter is punctuated by plenty of highs and lows. He’s an underrated songwriter that exists in starts and stops. For every HEAL, his breakthrough 2014 record, there are records like 2017’s Hard Love, which was not as warmly received. After thinking that Strand of Oaks was done after jettisoning his former backing band, he teamed up with members of My Morning Jacket for this, his sixth record.

Don’t be mistaken – this isn’t Strand of Oaks fronting My Morning Jacket. It’s a statement that’s far more consequential. The album opens with “Weird Ways,” where a dejected Showalter sings “I can’t feel it anymore/somehow I feel clearer than before”. He sounds dejected, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar as a slide guitar begins to accent his vocal. As the song nears its chorus, it begins to sweep, and at 1:30, a thunderous electric riff and drumbeat. It’s an incredible statement, invigorating life in to a group and proving that this is very different iteration of the band.

This continues with “Hyperspace Blues”. It is an apt title, as it feels like you’re zooming forward with Showalter in the Millenium Falcon. The guitars sound like the future, scribbling, squalling and fuzzing. Both ballad “Keys” and “Wild and Willing” sound like the most traditionally-sounding SOA song on the record, but it’s still a nice departure from the electric jolts of the first few tracks.

“Moon Landing” feels anxious. It’s full of squelching guitars (provided by Jason Isbell, sounding nothing like you’d expect from him) and humid rock organ. This fits completely in line with the lyrics, where Showalter ruminates on the death of Malcolm Young, the downside of being a professional musician when you’ve got a family, and Chris Cornell. There’s a lot going on here, but the last verse is both a little sad and a little true: “Cornell was born on the 20th of July/Same day I was born back in ’82/Same day Neil Armstrong took Buzz’s spot on the moon/Sometimes you get there first”.

The album’s title track feels positively huge – huge walls of synthesizer and monolithic guitars, it feels like you could live there. It sounds like Showalter wants to. He addresses someone named Mary who has been gone for some time, singing about wanting to “build a house where no one lives/get away from my phone and drugs/just my wife and people I love”. It sounds part fantasy and part hope. Then, moments later: “I am the Eraserland/I can start again“. Then it just feels like confidence. That’s real. It’s album of authentic, brutal moments and crafted by a band that can support the weight of Showalter’s conviction of a songwriter. Here’s hoping we make another few trips to Eraserland with this version of Strand of Oaks, because it seems like the right place to be.

Eraserland is out now on Dead Oceans.

On Nearer My God, Foxing Craft an Instant Classic

I’ve been struggling to write about this album since I first heard it a few months ago, and it’s mostly because I’m overwhelmed by every listen of Nearer My God. It’s an album title that smacks with the air of supreme confidence and ambition, one that too many bands fail to live up to. Foxing are not one of them, I am happy to say. It’s one of those super-rare occasions where a band somehow hits their stride as artists and hits a creative peak.

For their third record, Foxing paired with former Death Cab for Cutie member/producer Chris Walla. It’s abundantly clear that his steady hand has guided the group in a way they haven’t even bothered to attempt on record before.  Songs like the opener “Grand Paradise” with its blippy churn and the horn swells of the single “Slapstick” really are just setting up for sonics that are weirder and more ambitious. “Lich Prince” sort of feels like a woozy 2011 Drake ballad before it opens up to a gasping, monolithic rock song. Have the lyrics “I feel like a houseplant” ever been used before? Have they ever given way to a cataclysmic world-burning guitar solo? Has that ever seagued into falsetto harmonizations all in the course of a minute? Of course not. That’s what makes it so awesome.

The album’s title track “Nearer My God” has already made waves as the band released it in five different languages total – Spanish, French, German and Japanese. It’s a soaring, chugging power ballad, perhaps the most traditional thing on the record. Once you hear it, you can almost understand the universality of that melody and how it would translate into other languages. “Heartbeats” doesn’t sound like a rock band at all – soundscapes tempered with program drum hits and orchestral samples that sound super familiar but transformed into something that feels entirely fresh. Also, go listen to all nine minutes of “Nine Cups” and try to figure out what it is. I have a feeling it’s going to take a lot longer than I’ve already spent with it.

Nearer My God packs so much detail per song it’s impossible to quantify the breadth of what an accomplishment it is. Make no mistake Foxing have made an instant classic. It’s a template for going forward and a record we’ll look to as ‘emo’ (or whatever this is) makes the great leap forward. Very rare does an album come along that perfectly captures what it’s like to push the boundaries of an established sound and do it so brazenly and make it sound so organic. What a gift that is. 

On Lessons, The Sharp Shadows Show Off Some New Skills

On Lessons, The Sharp Shadows sophomore album, it’s clear the band has learned something after 2016’s Small Victories. The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Boston power-pop trio led by Stephen Bailey has returned with a collection of songs that feel a little more lived in then its predecessor. “Believe In Yourself (But Don’t Take On The World Alone)” feels a little Nick Lowe and a little Ted Leo, while “Don’t Say You’re Sorry to Me” feels straight out of a 50’s sock hop. (That’s a good thing.) The album’s first single, “Push Push Push” is unlike anything Sharp Shadows have done before – a nervy, shifting punk track where Bailey duets with Michelle Hutt of The Royal They. It’s barely over two minutes long and infectiously catchy – Sharp Shadows execute a perfect song in half the time it takes other bands.

With Lessons, it’s abundantly clear that Sharp Shadows have mastered their craft of big guitars and even bigger hooks. Bailey is no question a student of the power pop game – there’s a little Graham Parker, a little Big Star and plenty of confidence here. If there’s something to learn after this album is over is that Sharp Shadows are continuing  to evolving in their quest to create the perfect pop song. They’re pretty darn close as it stands.

On Dose Your Dreams, Fucked Up Return to Their Magnum Opus With an Even Better One

Let me be very clear here: Dose Your Dreams, Fucked Up’s first album in four years, is unquestionably their best record.

For a group already known for their ambitious 2011 rock opera David Comes to Life, the thought they would top it with another double album seems patently insane, but they actually *did it*. It’s an overwhelming assortment of punk, psych, digital hardcore with elements of arena rock and other genre experiences. That said, it represents everything great about them to this point and pushing them in completely new directions for the future. It’s an album elevating a ‘great band’ to an ‘all-time great band’.

There’s an incredible amount of ground to cover here, so I’ll provide some  cliff notes. For an album that’s this ambitious, it’s also a bit of a changing of the guard – band mastermind/guitarist Mike Haliechuk and drummer Jonah Falco are in firm control of the band, pushing Fucked Up in directions they couldn’t have dreamed up. Vocalist Damian Abraham has taken a less active presence in the group as priorities in his life shift, being deployed a little more carefully across 13 of the album’s 18 songs – and it works beautifully.

Whether it’s the catchy-as hell glam rock stomp of “Normal People,” the disco-psych (yes, you read that right) of “Dose Your Dreams” the gutbucket hardcore of “Living in a Simulation,” the throbbing snyth pummel of “Mechanical Bull” or guitarist Ben “Young Guv” Cook’s insta-classic shredded lead vocal on “Accelerate”, there’s a staggering amount to get into. Jonah Falco handles vocals on two songs, including the standout Beach Boys-ian “Love is an Island in the Sea”. Even J Mascis shows up to duet with Jennifer Castle on “Came Down Wrong,” which sounds like a little Dinosaur Jr. tribute in miniature.

Dose Your Dreams is about many things. Sure, it’s about Fucked Up’s most famous character, but it’s also the picture of a band – six people with disparate influences pushing outside what it means to *be* a band. No longer confined to traditional roles – there’s no longer one singer, one guitarist, one drummer, so on and so forth – they have made a record that’s messy, fearless and totally original – so much so that it needs to be heard to be totally understood. If it’s the last record the group makes – which always seems to be a threat – nearly every interview highlights how different each member is from each other, then holy shit, they went for broke and nailed it.

Given their track record in the last fifteen years, it would also not be surprising to see Fucked Up again reinvent themselves as something less recognizable, more fluid, more daring, and more powerful than we could ever possibly imagine. That’s what they’ve done here, because that’s what truly great bands do.

Dose Your Dreams is out Friday on Merge.

Restorations Tackle The Tough Stuff on LP5000

On Restorations first album in four years, LP5000, the group delivers an emotional wallop over seven songs in a 25 minute span. It’s a look into being in your thirties – appreciating all the things that the age brings – love, stability and the prospect of a bright future still ahead, but sometimes just falling short. In addition, with what feels like a scandal-a-day in the news, the world seems to be retching at this point. Like vocalist/guitarist Jon Loudon says on the creeping, anxious “Nonbeliever”: “I love your protest lines/oh, but who has the time?” coupled with “Got a partner for starters/and a kid on the way/can’t be doing all this dumb shit no more”, it’s pitting ideology vs. reality. How are you supposed to stay engaged when there’s all this other stuff that needs your attention?

That’s just a part of it. “The Red Door,” LP5000’s sweeping, totally anthemic first single addresses the process of  gentrification. “Feel my pulse pick up with/every building that’s built/haven’t we all felt a little/a little in between before?”, Loudon says. Sure, he could be talking about the band’s hometown of Philadelphia, but it also doubles of the transitional point of your life of moving from one constant to something totally unfamiliar. It’s a clever sleight of hand, until the final dead giveaway: “All I want is to see you comfortable/In your own skin/In your own way.” It’s a simple statement conveyed with the disappointment and exhaustion of emotion of watching one of your favorite places being wiped away without a trace in favor of something hollow and empty, or worse, replaced with nothing at all.

LP5000 is a complicated record that has remarkable highs and lows in such a short amount of time. Restorations have always been a band that crushes with dynamic sonic shifts paired with bone-cutting truths. That’s no different here. “And now you can’t afford to live in the town you were born in/When they ask you where you’re from, you tell them the truth/You don’t know, and who does anymore?, Loudon sings at the end of “Remains”. They’re a band trying to live the best they can and admitting it’s fucking hard. We’re people less about where we’re from and more about how we relate to each other through our experiences. In the unbearable nowness of now, it’s the best we can do. It’s good that records like LP5000 exist to remind us of that.

LP5000 is out September 28 on Tiny Engines.

Lucero Address Change on the Magnificent Among The Ghosts

Lucero – Among the Ghosts


2018 marks twenty years together for the Memphis-based Lucero, a group no stranger to making classic record after classic record. That’s why it’s not surprising that their ninth, Among the Ghosts might just be their best. On the whole, the album sounds like Ben Nichols coming to terms with a new phase in life – both as a husband and a father, and the double edge sword that can be.

It’s an album that shows the true breadth of their talents – the album’s title track starts on a mediation about a lot of things – Nichols talks about leaving his family behind on the road – specifically his young daughter – and the toll it takes. “The first words she said to me were ‘goodbye’”, he sings. It almost breaks your heart to hear the resignation in his voice.

Nichols sounds a little hard on himself about how life transforming has impacted those around him. That’s apparent on “Everything Has Changed,” charged by Rick Steff’s inimitable keys. “Looking like darker days/ain’t nobody else to blame/somewhere down in hell they call my name.” It’s a classic Lucero slow-burner, but seems to hold so much more weight in the light of the birth of his daughter.

One of the album’s best tracks, “For My Dearest Wife” was inspired by Civil War soldiers writing back to their families, however, it’s really feels like a storytelling device about Nichols missing his wife. The band offers an interpolation of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the song, backed by Roy Berry’s marching drums. It’s a beautiful piece to talk about something personal and relatable with a historical context in a way that many musicians could not execute as well as this, or even bother with attempting.

Has this band ever written a song as tender as “Loving”? That’s debatable, “It might not be good enough for them/but I just want to be good enough for you” may be one of the most realistic and honest lines in a love song in recent memory. It’s a song Nicohols originally wrote for a film of the same name about Richard and Mildred Loving, whose interracial marriage in the late 50’s was illegal where they lived, and their challenging of the law resulted in a Supreme Court decision ruling the law unconstitutional. While the song is referencing the film, the feeling is universal.

Among the Ghosts shows a band still growing after two decades together. For a band to be making music this good, an album that feels so consequential and full this late in their career is incredible. Yes, the stakes are higher, but Lucero is there to meet them.

Among the Ghosts is out August 3 on Thirty Tigers.