Unpopular Advent 2014 - Day 18: Strand of Oaks - 'Heal'
There are moments in one’s life when one feels acutely aware of one’s age, or at the very least of the ageing process. These moments are often wrapped up around conversations with younger generations where the lack of shared cultural reference points becomes acutely apparent. The same goes for when one is younger of course - when one feels that gaping void between where you are and where your elders seem to be, cloaked in mythic memorabilia, feigning appreciation when all one really feels is the dread of reaching that place oneself. There was something of this in Strand Of Oaks’ ‘Heal’, or at least there was for me as a listener.
Album opener ‘Goshen’ 97’ was a remarkable song, full of the ecstatic delight of being young and having the spotlight of music’s possibilities shone into one’s eyes; blinded by the white light of magic. For me of course the reference points were all wrong - too much long hair, beards, Smashing Pumpkins and Noisy Rock, but goodness the sound was sensational, not least thanks to J Mascis’ guitar providing such a glorious Pop cacophony in the same way as it once did on Buffalo Tom’s ‘Impossible’. And here’s the point I guess: the spirit transcended the references, closed the gaps of individual context and created a glow of supreme ecstasy. The rub being that it was precisely the specificity of references (singing Pumpkins in the mirror, dad’s old tape machine, smoking menthols) that allowed that transcendence to occur. Without those things songs run the risk of being bland generalities without conviction. It’s a tough juggling act, but ‘Goshen ’97’ certainly accomplished it with aplomb.
Elsewhere on ‘Heal’ there was a similar sense of conviction and an artfully composed illusion of authenticity (this is a mighty compliment, I should add, for I do not believe in the myth of ‘authenticity’ in mass mediated art forms). The emotionally draining ‘JM’ was another potent hymn to the power of music; this time a tense struggle between the memory of youthful surrender to the seductive dark sides of raging teen rebellion and the growing adult awareness of where that might ultimately lead. It’s that aforementioned gaping void that ‘JM’ inhabits, throwing out lines of hope and despair in equal measure. That void was there on ‘Shut In’ too: a song that reminded me of the elegiac qualities of Big Country at their finest (there were strong echoes of their ‘Restless Natives’ soundtrack) and indeed that 1980s feel was prevalent in a lot of ‘Heal’, where synths came on like Simple Minds in their ‘Sons and Fascination’ pomp, whilst on occasion you could almost hear the ghost of 'The Joshua Tree’ haunting the corridors of a run-down Mid Western town, kicking through the mud with Springsteen.
There are those who will tell you that those kinds of 1980’s references were best exemplified by the War On Drugs set from this year, and whilst there is something in that, for me ‘Heal’ played the finer hand. Compared to ‘Lost In The Dream’, ‘Heal’ sounded equally assured yet appealingly less sure of itself. It sounded more scuffed around the edges and with a soul more scoured and gouged. I loved it.