Album Review: Samantha Crain – Under Branch & Thorn & Tree

By on Friday, 17th July 2015 at 12:00 pm
 

SCrain Under Branch coverOn her fourth album ‘Under Branch & Thorn & Tree’, Oklahoma singer/songwriter Samantha Crain purveys a solid alt-country style that, ironically, aligns her more closely to the genre’s folk and blues roots than most of her modern mainstream counterparts. The wide thematic range of Crain’s songwriting extends from songs with political undertones, to narrative stories and character portraits, to heartrending romantic ballads. The instrumental arrangements of the songs are suitably varied, and Crain’s unique vocal delivery is exquisitely sensitive to each, alternating seamlessly between strident bitterness and soft introspection, finding all of the subtle shades of grey in between.

As stated in the press release for the album, Crain “has a jazz singer’s phrasing, often breaking words into rhythmic fragments that land before and after the beat, stretching syllables or adding grace notes to uncover hidden nuances in her lyrics.” This characteristic is immediately noticeable in the album’s first single ‘Outside the Pale’, which we featured in this Bands to Watch piece back in June. The song is sensual and dramatic overall, with a minor key string intro and deliberately unbalanced rhythms, especially in the repeated title lyric of the chorus, which echoes in the memory long after the song is over.

‘Under Branch & Thorn & Tree’ opens with a strong hook in ‘Killer’, whose slow, shuffling percussion and bass groove underlies the woozy, drunken feeling created by its uneven lyrical flow and weirdly ethereal synth strings. Crain delivers her brash, confrontational verse lyrics with measured precision, but it’s in the song’s brief refrain “they say the worst is over, the lowest reached / but it’s such a long road, keep marching” where her singing voice truly shines.

Crain evokes the idea of the feminine mystique in the folky ballad ‘Kathleen’, in which she recalls the warmth of friendship in a simpler time: “but there was a golden braid and an open ear / a funny joke and a lack of fear / the clock out of work, the joy of Kathleen”. The thread of that friendship carries through to ‘Elk City’, as Crain weaves a narrative of becoming trapped in a small town. While perhaps inelegant, Crain’s lyrics are evocative in their blunt honesty: the verse “I almost moved to Dallas / with my best friend Kathleen / but I met a guy at the Longhorn / he said he could fix my washing machine”, for example.

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‘Big Rock’ is an uptempo country track whose twangy lap steel and gritty guitars belie its lyrics, which talk about being stuck in a rut while life around you moves on. Like many country songs of its ilk, its chorus is catchy and optimistic in spite of the trouble: “but its a big rock / a big flat rock / make myself a little home / even though I’m all alone / the view’s alright”.

Crain presents a beguiling character study in ‘You or the Mystery’, whispering introspectively through the lyrical lines “he seemed like a sad man / and he slammed all the doors / never drew up his curtains / he was small and pale on the porch” over a slow, shadowy instrumental arrangement. ‘All In’ is similarly introspective, though more vaguely abstract and musically austere.

The poignant ballads ‘When You Come Back’ and ‘Moving Day’ are both plain-spoken and plaintive, the former dealing with the very public pain of a romantic breakup in a small town, the latter taking a glimpse into a more private and intimate moment between former lovers. The vocal duet in the penultimate verse of ‘When You Come Back’ intensifies the heartache of that song, while ‘Moving Day’ employs a sweeter vocal tone and a heartwrenching harmonic modulation under the lyrics “I know the day is gone / I missed the dawn far too long ago / could you hear me out? / I see it now, I’m not too proud” to achieve the same heightened effect.

With ‘Under Branch & Thorn & Tree’, Samantha Crain has created and curated an engaging series of vignettes portraying the darker side of life in small-town America. Her attention to detail, both in her poetry and her vocal delivery, will delight singer/songwriter aficionados. Fans of fellow alt-country divas Natalie Prass and Caitlin Rose will likely find the album appealing to their tastes as well. Even you normally cringe at the thought of a stereotypical country twang, you might stop and reconsider after listening to Crain’s example of what finely-crafted authentic country music can sound like.

8.5/10

‘Under Branch & Thorn & Tree’ is out today, the 17th of July, on Full Time Hobby. Samantha Crain was in session with Marc Riley last week, and you can listen to the session on BBC iPlayer here. She will play a run of live dates in the UK this August. For all past TGTF coverage of Samantha Crain, go here.

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