If you've only heard Strand of Oaks' Tim Showalter, there's a bit of visual dissonance to overcome the first time you see him.
The burly, bearded, heavily tattooed Philadelphia resident looks like he's more likely to be fronting a Motörhead tribute band or working as a bouncer at a biker bar than delivering expansive, electronically enhanced folk-rock with shockingly pretty vocals.
The songs filling Strand of Oaks' new Hard Love album and his 2014 breakthrough, HEAL, veer from delicate piano balladry to heavy riff-rockers with ease, and at various moments you'll hear shades of Springsteen, '80s synth-pop or reggae-fied dub.
"I think my brain is an FM radio and it's just always crawling the dial," Showalter says from his Philly home by way of explanation. "I'm not proficient enough at music to actually write a dub song, but I can feel what a dub song is and can play around with it."
Hard Love features a lot of playing around, as the tunes explore a mind-altering drug trip in the Australian desert ("On the Hill"), the music that inspired him ("Radio Kids") and a sibling's near-death experience ("Taking Acid and Talking to My Brother"). A first effort at recording was tossed out at one point — "I thought the songs deserved a little bit more. I got a little too much in my head" — and Showalter started over, this time adopting an open-door policy where friends and fellow musicians could drop by to party or shake a tambourine.
The result is a nine-song set that still pushes sonic boundaries for the one-time solo folkie, while maintaining some of the loose vibe he wanted. Its brevity is a strength: Showalter says "a record should only be about 35 or 40 minutes. [The Beatles'] Revolver is, like, 32 minutes, and it feels huge."
Even better, Showalter says, the new songs were recorded in such a way that they feel road-ready from the jump. He just took his new band to Europe for a short tour, and "from the first show to the tenth show, it's amazing how the songs are already sounding and growing.
"The album itself almost feels like a live record," Showalter says. "It's real natural to play, the songs are already ready to be expanded. These songs lend themselves to exploration. It's hard to play them in under 10 minutes sometimes."
Upon hearing the suggestion that this might take Strand of Oaks away from labels like "folk-rock" into "jam-band" territory, Showalter reacts enthusiastically.
"I would fully embrace that title!" he says. "How many shows have you been to where you're like, 'Am I just listening to the record right now? The beers are cheaper at home!'
"We don't know where the night is going to go when we play, but we want to offer up something bigger." ♦
Strand of Oaks with Heather McEntire • Thu, March 23 at 8 pm • $13 • All-ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • thebartlettspokane.com • 747-2174