Strand of Oaks, Leave Ruin
Beauty born of tragedy: gorgeous folk songs with a dirty sense of humor
If a bearded dude makes an album in the woods and no one's around to hear him, does he make a sound? Judging by the impact that quiet, folky one-man-bands have been making lately, absolutely. Last year, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver holed up in a Wisconsin cabin and recorded an eerie, lo-fi opus that topped nearly everyone's Best of 2008 list. Now Timothy Showalter — the Hebrew day school teacher behind Strand of Oaks — has dragged his acoustic guitar into the coal highlands of Northern Pennsylvania and emerged with a debut as weathered and warm as an old down comforter. And just as timeless, too.
Showalter's house burned down before he recorded this album, so he wrote many of these songs in hotels and on park benches, using borrowed instruments. You can hear the desolation in his cracked high notes and the haunted-barn Americana he builds from banjos, pianos and pedal-steel. But like Will Oldham before him, he's also got a gift for dirty jokes. The organ-laced hymn "New Paris" finds him apologizing, "Sorry your mom hates me so much/ 'Cuz I'm all she wants in a man." And on "Sister Evangeline," a love note from a priest to a nun, he sings in a Neil Young-style warble, "I'll keep thinking of her/ And she'll keep touching herself/ And we'll both die of guilt." Leave Ruin would be heartbreaking if it wasn't so funny. Or maybe it would be funny if it wasn't so heartbreaking. Either way, Showalter's inner tug-of-war between dark humor and plain old darkness has made for one hell of a debut.