If Atlantic City is a low-rent substitute for Vegas, then Wildwood is AC’s lower-rent, harder-drinking cousin. Clinging to a chunk of barrier island shoreline toward the bottom end of South Jersey, Wildwood’s a tough survivor, the kind of place that explodes with trolley-hopping tourists and classic rock cover bands in summer and seasonally nurses a ghost town hangover in winter. It is not a place that springs to mind when envisioning meccas of creative replenishment and spiritual renewal.
But to each his own. Philadelphia-based Strand of Oaks frontman Timothy Showalter loves Wildwood — especially in winter, when the shoobies (tourists) have gone home, the beaches are empty, and wind off the Atlantic feels like a razor slicing through your lungs.
By the end of 2017, after recording and touring behind “Hard Love,” the burly indie-rocker was burned out and depressed; normally a prolific songwriter, he had nothing to say, or at least nothing he could figure out how to express. Then My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel cast him a lifeline, essentially saying: If you want to make some music, I’m here. Showalter accepted, Broemel promptly booked studio time and recruited MMJ bandmates — drummer Patrick Hallahan, keyboardist Bo Koster and bassist Tom Blankenship — and longtime friend Jason Isbell also signaled his availability.
But Showalter had no songs. So he retreated to Wildwood for a few solitary weeks of contemplating and writing about hedonistic years on the road, family life, and new beginnings. The result was the soul-bracing “Eraserland,” recorded in Louisville, Kentucky, and released last month by Dead Oceans. You can almost hear the Atlantic pounding behind certain tracks.
The album is a 10-song journey from question to answer. Opening track “Weird Ways” confesses, “I don’t feel it anymore” — as in, Whither art thou, O muse? Broemel and the MMJ crew empathetically animate the stormy waters of Showalter’s songs, from the droney title track to the churning “Moon Landing” (with muscular guitar from Isbell) and sweet pop of “Ruby.” “Keys,” a love song to Showalter’s wife, sounds like War On Drugs meets “My Hometown”-era Springsteen as it expresses gratitude for a love that’s genuine while resizing dreams to manageable size for an uncertain future. Showalter sings with the tender hope of a man bruised by fear.
Dreamy closer “Forever Chords” responds to the despair of “Weird Ways” by acknowledging artists’ struggle to maintain equilibrium, and the truth that the only way past fear — of rejection, writer’s block, poor choices — is to work through it. Koster’s keyboard playing’s gorgeous, and Showalter has never sounded more vulnerable, vocally or lyrically:
“Are we looking for answers
Or just filling in the holes
The problem with living
Is one day you won’t
Major to minor
With a slow beating pulse…
If you believe you can be loved
You’ll outlive your past”
It’s an album that grows on you; one you can grow with over time. Wildwood in wintertime somehow seems more appealing.
Strand of Oaks headlines Teragram Ballroom, 1234 W. 7th St., Downtown LA, 8 p.m. Monday, April 22; $20. Wild Pink opens. Info: (213) 689-9100. strandofoaks.net, teragramballroom.com