Columbia Daily Tribune - Crain brings sweet, strange sound to Blue Fugue show
By Aarik Danielsen
Singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen, right? With the glut of guitar-slinging minstrels on the music scene, it can be hard to know how to sift the surplus and find artists whose music will challenge convention yet give comfort in moments where only song can provide a balm for life’s frenzy.
Although it can be an overwhelming pursuit at times, giving young artists a chance to prove why they should be on your radar can yield beautiful results, exposing us to musical standouts who are about to break big – Samantha Crain is one of those gems. Crain, who plays The Blue Fugue Saturday night, is only 23 but her sound possesses a wonderful worldliness, cutting through the noise around her and around the listener. Here are but a few of the bullet points about Crain’s budding career which will hopefully catalyze interest in catching her live.
Sounds like: The quirky melodic phrasing of Joanna Newsom meets the raw, passionate, gritty vocals of Brandi Carlile. This unique, evocative voice finds its home in songs which marry the rambling folk feel of early Dylan records or fellow Oklahoman Woody Guthrie with accessible alt-country structures and intermittent guitar freakouts reminiscent of Wilco axman Nels Cline’s playing. In short, there are reference points for Crain’s sound but it is something that must be heard to be understood, a beautiful blend of the familiar and completely fresh. Where you may have heard/seen her: Over the past few years, Crain has hit the road with everyone from The Avett Brothers to Ingrid Michaelson, Rachael Yamagata to The Everybodyfields. She’s received write-ups in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Mother Jones and Paste. You can read a New York Times review of a March 2009 Brooklyn date here. Standout songs: Crain’s latest, “You (Understood),” will hit stores in June. Each of its 11 tracks radiate and resonate but a few especially shine. Below are my reflections on those tracks, paired with details and musings Crain provided in a song-by-song digest in press materials.
“Lions”: The album opens with the steady strum of this cut; no more than 20 seconds in, that glorious voice arrives. The song pulses along with a vibrant bass line underscoring the colorful chord progression. Crain wrote that “Lions” came as a description of what it’s like for an Oklahoman to endure the “intensely bleak and phalange-numbing experience” of a Michigan winter. “The sun escapes to the southern hemisphere and the ever turbid steel wall of sky hangs low,” she wrote. “The lion-shaped mounds of glaciated snow pushed to the flanks rise up over the laggard cars and severe buildings. They kidnap our avidity, our devotion, our skin pigments and our direction with a grip that can only be relaxed by the happening warmth of spring. Mother Nature assures you, ‘Gonna get you through this all.’”
“Equinox”: Crain and company lay down a propulsive rock groove before the song grows ever moodier, a feel made manifest in her vocals and the spits and spurts which come from the guitars. Musically, the sounds nicely paint her exploration of “the old Jekyll and Hyde idea, the idea that there are two sides to people, an evil and a good, dark and light. Now, I almost whole-heartedly believe people are much more elaborate and convoluted than that, but the simplicity of the notion is so romantic, so effortless that I want to believe it.”
“We Are the Same”: A sweet intertwining and tangling of guitar and vocal lines marks this ballad, a consideration of how “loving someone makes us, all at once, absolutely selfless and wholly selfish.” A brief, shimmering keyboard figure adds glorious peculiarity to what is otherwise a very simple sound.
“Religious Wind”: “When the clichéd phrases ‘butterflies in my stomach’ or ‘stars in my eyes’ aren’t enough to express your ludicrous joy in being with someone, don’t hesitate to enlist metaphors of God-like forces of nature, the vibrations and songs of the spheres, and dramatic choral voices to aid in getting your point across,” Crain writes. “I did.” Indeed, this gently gliding country shuffle conveys the closest thing to ecstasy heard on the record.
“Holdin’ That Wheel”: One of the album’s best and most idiosyncratic tunes starts with a peculiar, plaintive melody set against a finger-picked acoustic guitar. Bluesy licks, dynamic changes and a section in which the song changes tempos as if someone was hitting a fast-forward button color the cut with strange shades but never threaten the track’s overall unity.
“Up on the Table”: Crain wrote that this was her first attempt at co-writing a song. With Chicago-based artist Becky Beighley, she penned a folky number which uses “jumping up on a table” as a metaphor, “a pedestal, a platform for new-found” personal “triumph.” A vibrant, bouncy groove and occasionally boisterous drums convey this idea musically.
“Santa Fe”: An ode to one of my favorite American cities, Crain writes that this convivial duet with Matthew Milia of Michiganders Frontier Ruckus describes the difficulties of finding calm in the midst of an increasingly celebrity-centric culture. “One of the places within these borders where I feel things are a little less rushed and people are still communal is Santa Fe,” she said. “I found myself running there to get away from my contemporaries, my rushed lifestyle, but then feeling the betrayal to my own generation and, in response, leaving. This has never been reconciled.” Watch the video for “Santa Fe” below:
Doors open at 8 for Saturday’s show; Zeb Dewar and the Fed share the bill.