The genius of Timothy Showalter's dark folk tapestries is the way in which they are both unassuming and in-your-face. That dynamic was much more evident on Strand of Oaks' previous release, Pope Killdragon, as Showalter stepped outside of the mythos of his biography (folk singer whose house burns down and writes a brilliant record about it) to deliver something altogether unique and genre-defying. Showalter is a bit more pensive on Dark Shores, but the power of his music is the same. Nerding-out for just a moment: If Strand of Oaks songs played Dungeons & Dragons, they'd be a rogue, lurking in the shadows until they explode in a vicious backstab that completely overwhelms their adversaries.
It's an effect best exemplified by a track like "Maureen's." The music slithers in quietly, almost seductively if not for the ominous lyrics. But almost out of nowhere, you're suddenly aware that Showalter is bellowing a soul-crushing observation: "Everything you know is wasted / Nothing left to go back for now." Ultimately, it's a song about unrequited love, but you wouldn't even know it among all the apocalyptic doom and gloom, until Showalter barely breathes out the last few lines: "I'll find an endless spring / Where clouds give way to newborn suns / I will find you waiting there / Bathed in light, and out of reach."
It's not all stormy turbulence, though, at least not musically. "Little Wishes" show glimmers of genuine brightness. It's not a happy song, but where its predecessor stabs you in the gut, "Little Wishes" gets you in the heart. The roots-rocking "Satellite Moon" bounces along in a way Strand of Oaks hasn't really done before. "Hard to Be Young" sounds like it may have been influenced by Arcade Fire. And "Last Grains" is a frank, bleak depiction of life after the 2008 financial collapse.
Dark Shores is a new direction for Strand of Oaks. While previous albums have been either intensely personal (Leave Ruin) or highly conceptual (Pope Killdragon), Dark Shores reaches for a more grand, universal statement while retaining Timothy Showalter's unique haunted majesty.