Indiana Kids Listening to Smashing Pumpkins: A Review of Strand of Oaks’ HEAL

Indiana Kids Smashing Pumpkins

Growing up and loving music in Indiana means coming to terms with John “John Cougar Mellencamp” Mellencamp.  This is the music of our people, we are told.  Jacks and Dianes sucking on chili dogs outside the Tastee Freeze, the lot of us.  And I probably believed it for a long time; I unabashedly loved Americana rock for all of my childhood and abashedly loved it for a good chunk of my teen years and adulthood.  We are the birth state of Michael Jackson, too, of course.  But his music itself cannot be easily identified as Midwestern, or at least not the romanticized version of Indiana – the Hoosier State of cornfields and basketball hoops in every driveway.  That all belongs to Mellencamp, with his rows of pink houses and dying farms.

And I would be lying if I said I didn’t like a lot of Mellencamp’s music, which reminds me instantly of a childhood spent in cool grocery stores and later years spent driving gorgeously, the windows rolled down and music turned up.  But all of that has a nostalgic sweep running through it that does not match the Indiana I actually experienced as a teenager.  Indiana is open spaces, yes, but it is also closed rooms.  You would never find me eating a Tastee Freeze sundae on a sunny afternoon; the Dairy Queen in my hometown was infamous for its sour soft-serve.  Instead, I was in my room – listening to music, reading, writing bad poetry.  My friends lived on farms miles outside of town, so before we all got cars, I spent most of my time by myself.  Looking back on it now, I realize I craved the loneliness.  It started as physical reality and then became an internalized landscape.  I escaped real people so that I could commune with “others” – artists, fictional characters, creations.  The worldly beckoned, but as a teen I wanted it more as a concept and less as a reality.

Northern Indiana marks its people with its barrenness.  And despite saying I would never stay here – I did, I’m here now.  I have come to terms with Indiana over the years, but I still wish sometimes for that desire for worldliness as defined by someone who didn’t yet participate in the economy.  As I become more jaded and the state shows its gross political colors, the closed room-ness feels more and more apt to actual Indiana experiences.  It has become easy to feel all alone in the middle of a state that contains nearly all the people I love.

Luckily, just as my Indiana existential despair reached its peak this summer, a voice came whispering out of the dark.  And that voice was inside Strand of Oaks’ new album, HEAL.  Strand of Oaks is the performing name of singer-songwriter Timothy Showalter.  Showalter is an Indiana native; he grew up in Goshen, just a county over from me.  He now lives out East, but his music shows that his hometown still haunts him.  HEAL has been heralded by reviewers for its confessional nature.  Showalter is upfront about where his songs come from; many of them deal with problems in his marriage, a fact he’s mentioned repeatedly in recent interviews.  But among the broken-heart songs are perfect depictions of being a creative, moody adolescent growing up in northern Indiana.  The first song on HEAL, “Goshen ‘97” deals with what it means to be young, a little stupid, and discovering music for the first time.  The refrain is simple and great:

I was lonely, I was having fun

I was lonely, but I was having fun

I don’t want to start over again

Just those few lines mirror my own experience as a teen: bored, a little desperate, and eating up music and books like a madman.  I remember the last summer before I had a job, when I was fifteen, and how I filled those long days with lying on my bed and listening to an album for hours at a time, only stopping long enough to read a few more chapters of whatever ancient book I’d checked out from the library (that was my summer of The Great Gatsby, a summer steeped in imagined, impossible tragedies).

There are two things that define rural or small-town Indiana teenagers: one is the Mellencamp ideal, that sense of small lives lived among the vegetables and the drive-ins.  The other is the one Strand of Oaks presents and the one closer to the lives of my friends and me: a sense of abandonment and private discovery.  In the pre-wireless, pre-smart-phones days, growing up in a small town in a rural area meant that it was much harder to discover new, “cool” things.  The only radio stations around here (and I just realized that the same stations Showalter would have known as an adolescent were the exact same ones available to me) had very little range: a mainstream pop station, a hard-rock/metal station (“The Bear”), a lot of country and oldies stations.  If you wanted to hear interesting new bands, you had to hear about them from a magazine or a cooler friend.  I still remember going out and buying music blind just based on good reviews I read; that was how I discovered what would become my favorite bands in high school – Modest Mouse, Interpol, The Strokes.  Living in rural Indiana means having to get what you get.

In “Goshen ’97,” Showalter mentions singing along to the Smashing Pumpkins, a reference so specific that I can’t help but love it.  It is such an honest, clear-eyed portrayal of being a kid and discovering music when music is a not-very-available resource for you.  (From the song “Shut In”: “I was born in the middle / Maybe too late, everything good had been made”).  In middle school, when I stopped listening to boy bands and was looking for something to match my own inner angst, I listened religiously to 103.9 “The Bear.”  My parents, who had been music lovers also at that age, had bought me a very nice stereo system for Christmas and not only did it have a five-CD changer, it had a good radio antenna and a dual tape deck.  This meant I could tape songs off the radio, a near-religious act that, when I think back to the age of 14, is mostly what I remember.  The Bear played mainstream rock, which meant you would hear a Staind song followed by a Led Zeppelin song followed by the Smashing Pumpkins.  Like Showalter, I listened to “Tonight, Tonight” and “1979” and felt excited by their sad melodies.  “Disarm” was a particular favorite of mine, and one I tried in vain to capture on tape for months at a time.

As I got older, I learned to be embarrassed about liking the music that plays on The Bear (though I still hold onto my A Perfect Circle albums with iron fists).  Also, it turns out that Billy Corgan is pretty annoying.  But nevertheless, music from bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots meant the world to me during that crucial crossover from being a Backstreet Boys fan to becoming a Modest Mouse fan.  So when Showalter sings so warmly about that time in his own life, I cannot help but feel like HEAL is an album made just for me.

The album only gets better from there, too.  Showalter expands and deepens the idea of being young and in love with the act of discovering music on the song “JM,” which Showalter sings directly to the influential, late Midwestern musician Jason Molina.  “JM” begins beautifully:

I was an Indiana kid, getting no one in my bed

I had your sweet tunes to play

I was staring at the map, feeling fire in my head

I had your sweet tunes to play

“JM” is probably the best song on the album.  Besides its lovely lyrics, which speak great truth about what it means to love an artist’s work (sometimes to bittersweet/painful effect and influence), the music has an interesting build-and-break effect to it.  Loud, distorted guitar crashes come and go, but the music always lets the lyrics breathe.  It’s as good an ode or elegy as anyone could ever write for the person who has influenced him or her most.

Of course, not every song deals with being an “Indiana kid.”  Most of the songs on the album are more about the ebb and flows of a relationship.  But they are gorgeous, gorgeous songs.  I had to listen to the album many times to get the full effect of it.  What is most impressive about HEAL is how different it can sound from song to song and yet still work as a whole.  Strand of Oaks’ sound changes, which means each song reminds me of a different artist or genre I love.  Some pieces (“HEAL, “Shut In”) are Springteen-esque, while “Wait for Me” reminds me of the type of blurry music made by bands like Wye Oak and Caveman.  Perhaps the surprise is that despite being largely about loneliness and mental anguish, HEAL has an Americana vibe to it.  The music is concentrated in fairly simple rhythms, and any distortion or synthetic sound is built on top of a consistent guitar-and-drums base.  Not Mellencamp exactly, but it is easy to picture HEAL and Scarecrow co-existing on the same plane.  HEAL just happens to be a little darker, a little rougher.

I hate to be hyperbolic, but HEAL is an almost perfect album.  The point of view Showalter’s lyrics and music possess carries from song to song, uniting the entire thing from beginning to end.  Even though each song is distinguishable and interesting in its own way, the culmination of the entire thing is what makes HEAL such an engaging work.

Being from a flyover state means you rarely get to find the type of art that directly deals with your own experiences.  And it means almost never finding artists you genuinely admire from the same place as you.  I discovered Strand of Oaks and HEAL at a perfect time.  I am not unhappy with my Indiana life; I deeply love parts of the state.  I’m even nostalgic for those angst-ridden teen years when it was hard to find the type of music or films that engaged me in the intellectual or emotional way I needed.  HEAL is not a nostalgic album, but it is one that shows how fluctuations in time – going from lonely, artistically-inclined teenager to disappointed, burdened adult – can exist along a similar emotional spectrum in one person’s life.  And this spectrum is so much closer to my actual experience as an Indiana native and lifer: to be frustrated with where you are and where you come from, but glad for it, too.  (Perhaps even John Mellencamp also felt this way sometimes; his songs “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “R.O.C.K. in the USA” exist – shockingly – on the same album.)  Place is not just a landscape; it is a mindscape, too.  And HEAL feels like a genuine mindscape of my home state.

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