One of my very favorite songs of 2010 was “Oh, What A Time!” by Pearly Gate Music, a band I reviewed for Mezzic a couple months back. The reason I was so taken with “Oh, What A Time!” was because of how completely unexpected it was. Swimming in a sea of sincere folk, “Oh, What A Time!” found Zach Tillman, Mr. Pearly Gate Music himself, going on a fictional date with Jesus Christ. “The only man I ever loved died two thousand years before I could ask him to show and say ‘I really think we should go,'” Tillman sings. The song ends tragically, with Tillman leaning in to kiss Jesus good night only to be told “I really don’t think we should do this.”
What makes the track stand out is the fact that, as the absurd premise unfolds, Tillman recants the events in complete earnestness, never playing the song for laughs or kitsch but instead displaying the same candor he does on all of his album’s ten songs. On his 2010 sophomore release, Pope Killdragon, Strand of Oaks (a.k.a. Timothy Showalter) does something similar with the record’s 7th track, “Daniel’s Blues”.
At first, “Daniel’s Blues” doesn’t sound topically different from the rest of Pope Killdragon, an album with lyrics focusing on disappointment, heartbreak, and. However, as you turn a more astute ear to the tune, you’ll hear familiar names like Chevy and Gilda. After that, the lines “(It’s a film with) a young kid named Murray. It’s a ghost flick.” The pieces begin to fall in to place and it becomes apparent quickly that the titular Daniel is Dan Aykroyd and the reason he has the blues is because he’s dealing with the unexpected death of his good friend John Belushi. What transpires is doubtlessly quite fictionalized but “Daniel’s Blues” is easily as compelling than the real story behind Aykroyd’s reaction to Belushi’s death, if not more so.
With it’s first track, the instrumental “West River”, Pope Killdragon doesn’t really let you know what Strand of Oaks is all about. “West River” could be on any number of albums or on the score to a hundred different films (although for me, it sort of recalls what I remember of The Neverending Story). It’s a gutsy move to start an album out with an instrumental, especially when the instrumental is not indicative of your sound whatsoever and it isn’t long into Pope Killdragon that you realize “West River” is somewhat of an anomaly. With second track “Kill Dragon”, Strand Of Oaks shows it’s true colors and they’re that of heartbreaking honesty. In fact, as Showalter sings “Kill Dragon”‘s refrain of “Mary, Mary, Mary, would you marry me?”, it becomes increasingly hard to not feel as if you’re proposing marriage to your significant other yourself. Showalter doesn’t tell you whether his Mary accepts his proposition in “Kill Dragon” and the anticipation of the answer is enough to illicit a guttural reaction from the listener. As the song wrapped up, leaving Showalter’s fate with Mary a mystery, I felt my stomach drop, feeling just as nervous for his potential of heartbreak as he (or his narrator, if the song is not based on a real life experience) must have felt.
That trend of mental misery continues throughout the entirety of Showalter’s second record. In fact, with it’s anguished lyrics and subdued, folk-rooted music, I feel almost silly for not checking Showalter’s Pitchfork approved album out earlier. Thematically, Pope Killdragon seems to share influences with Hiss Golden Messenger (A band that produced one of my favorite albums of 2010) and Timber Timbre (A band that I count as one of my all time favorites). To discount Strand of Oaks as “just another sad dude with an acoustic guitar” and Pope Killdragon as “just another folk record with dark overtones” would be a grave error, however. With it’s conceptual lyrics that have a consistent streak of black humor and subdued yet memorable music, it’s no surprise that Pitchfork gave the record an 8.1. If I’m not mistaken, that might make Strand Of Oaks Pitchfork’s best reviewed folk artist since Bon Iver left the world of Wisconsin obscurity behind him.
Towards the end of Pope Killdragon comes some of the records most interesting and remarkable moments. “Last To Swim” is perhaps the album’s best showcase for Showalter’s tremblingly earnest voice, with the songs gentle overtones giving way to a simple sort of grandeur as the song culminates with the addition of pulse pounding drums and Showalter’s cinematic storytelling.
As Pope Killdragon ends with it’s title track, perhaps the record’s most perfect song, it’s hard to not feel like you took a journey with Showalter, a trip that ended up breaking your heart and reopening every old wound you thought had long since closed. It’s a fitting emotion, as “Pope Killdragon” once again tells the story of Mary, the one which began on “Kill Dragon”. While Showalter never tells you exactly what transpired between himself and his Mary, the emotion in his voice as he repeats “Pope Killdragon”‘s refrain of “I just want it to alright”, you can’t imagine the ending was from a storybook. This is real life after all, there girls get stood up at their dad’s wedding, significant others don’t live forever, and marriage proposals are met with rejection. It’s impossible to not be faced with this cruel reality when listening to Strand of Oaks and when Showalter sings with increasing insistence that he wants it to be alright, you feel his words as if they’re your own. And that empathy that Strand of Oaks is able to illicit from their listeners is perhaps their strongest suit.