Dusted Magazine CD Review-Samantha Crain-Under Branch & Thorn & Tree (Ramseur)
The comparisons to Woody Guthrie make sense — Oklahoma folk singers with class concerns — but they seem to miss the point. At her most natural, Samantha Crain’s a storyteller. If we want to keep dusty, maybe Steinbeck’s a better match. Under Branch & Thorn & Tree has been described as a protest album, which is fair enough, but it’s of a certain sort. It lacks the polemics, the explicit politics and the calls to arms. The record contains 10 vignettes whose social awareness let them be statements in their telling. It’s not exactly a protest album — it’s a resistance album.
If there is a rallying point, it comes on opener “Killer,” which sets a mission statement: “They say the worst is over, the lowest reached / But it’s such a long road – keep marching!” The song responds to an unnamed but presumably systemic and authoritative “killer of girls, the killer of self.” The killer feels unstoppable, but it isn’t, and the only recourse isn’t battle or pedantry, but simple continuation, in which going on is its own form of resistance.
“Elk City” tells a woman’s painful story in tones both vibrant and subdued. It’s the song that should bring a hush to a noisy, unexpecting crowd, whether in a honky tonk or in the Platonic version of Cafe Wha? More striking than any explicit statement about the difficulties of life is one stanza that Crain’s character sings after meeting a man:
“Well that night turned into 9 months
Sitting on my ass
Waiting for a baby
My first and my last”
The singer can only handle her life “one more night” at a time, watching with a mix of pride and sadness as her daughter escapes the town, doing what our narrator never could.
Crain peoples the album with characters who are beaten down but continuing, sometimes more hopefully than others and never without scars. Crain’s struggle isn’t just against the system or the government or racism (although all that’s there, sometimes just in shadow form). It’s also against the buffets of emotional life, of heartbreak and unexpected isolation. There are moments you have to grab, as when the singer in “All In” says, “Stand up to the complication / I feel like I’ve won” even as she recognizes that it’s just not enough to make a cancerous relationship turn out well.
All of these stories flow through a consistent aesthetic, varied enough to stay surprising (as with the upbeat fun of “Big Rock”) and loaded with memorable melodies. Crain’s voice and acoustic guitar stay at the center, with smooth lap steel coloring in the sound. The record sounds like the John Vanderslice production it is, tuned to Crain’s mood and staying crisp but not slick. There are edges and corners, and the candles don’t shine too brightly for songs tangled in dismay.
The songs sound like what they express, loneliness and perseverance. It’s a protest in which everyone is going down, but it’s a resistance in which no one quite has to accept it. The outcome doesn’t look good. “Moving Day” closes the album with a break-up filled with longing, but at least there’s still longing. And there isn’t time to worry about the end, not for characters (or people) getting through one night and just trying to keep marching.