Paste Magazine Review
Samantha Crain & the Midnight Shivers
Songs in the Night
Rating: 78/100 (Commendable)
Night Time is the Right time
Unaffected Oklahoma singer/songwriter crafts impressive debut LP
by Steve LaBate
A few months ago, Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers stopped by Paste for an in-studio performance to promote her forthcoming full-length debut, Songs in the Night. Witnessing the 21-year-old singer/songwriter earnestly belting, eyes closed, pretty-but-plain brown hair cascading over her shoulders, her preciousness seemed far less manufactured than many of the artists with whom she might be compared. Mystical, harp-toting songstress Joanna Newsom comes to mind.
No disrespect to Newsom, who’s an extraordinarily talented and, arguably, more creatively ambitious artist. It’s just that, where her music takes more of a high-concept/high-art approach, Crain’s is less self-conscious and more downhome; it offers a more populist/realist slant on freak-folk, a subgenre which sometimes makes suspension of disbelief a little difficult, what with all the fairies, stable boys and enchanted forests. Crain’s more traditional lyrical themes seem to suit her just fine.
The most noticeable similarity between Crain and Newsom is their quivering vocal delivery, though Newsom’s vibrato is more exaggerated. But these two artists are hardly the only ones using this approach. So many great modern female vocalists sing with a similar affectation—Feist, Jolie Holland, My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, Hope For A Golden Summer’s Claire Campbell, even Paramore’s Haley Williams. It’s a distinct but no longer unique approach. Still, Crain does it as well as any of them, and her strong songwriting, able backing band (especially Stephen Sebastian, whose impeccable electric-guitar work is Songs in the Night’s secret weapon) and wide variety of subtly incorporated influences get her past a somewhat overdone and unoriginal, if still impressive, singing style.
Somewhat ironically, opening track “Rising Sun” kicks off Songs in the Night just as a new day begins. Stripped-down and earthy, the tune seems to set the table for a freak-folk feast, as Crain warbles affectingly, asking a potential suitor to see the good in her (“Look into my eyes … come and see the rising sun … it’s about to break”), but—while the music feels timeless—Crain isn’t in a chariot, she’s in a car, and the suitor’s not a minotaur, just a regular-old human being.
With the start of the very next tune, the album’s title track, it’s apparent you’re in for a far more varied menu than you might’ve originally thought. The song shuffles along to a walking bass line and a jangly electric guitar. Soon, a playful folk-pop chorus erupts, equally indebted to Jewel, Western swing (unsurprising when you consider Crain is from Oklahoma) and ’60s girl groups.
As the album unfolds, the British folk revivalisms are enhanced by the presence of countless other styles. “Bullfight (Change Your Mind)” sounds like The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” covered by spaghetti-Western rockers (and former Neko Case backing band) The Sadies. “Get the Fever out” teeters on the brink of straight-up modern indie pop a la The Shins or Band of Horses, minus the shiny synths or cavernous reverb. “Long Division” incorporates elements of classic country, and also some bassy, laidback horns that point toward New Orleans, though in the more sober days following Fat Tuesday, and “Bannafish Revolution” snakes northeast toward Depression-era New York, with snatches of smoky horns creating a “Minnie the Moocher”-style cabaret vibe.
Even with all of these different sounds seeping into the mix, Songs in the Night—produced, engineered and mixed by Danny Kadar (My Morning Jacket, The Avett Brothers)—is surprisingly cohesive, tied together by Crain’s uncrowded vocals and the carefully limited instrumental palette (almost exclusively: one acoustic guitar, one electric guitar, bass, drums with brushes). Sure, there are the aforementioned horns, and touches of mandolin, Wurlitzer and piano, but the approach favors simplicity, and it works.
Lyrically, Crain avoids the kind of heavy-handedness that might block listeners from interpreting her songs in a distinct, personal way. Some might argue that her more vague approach is lazy; that she no point of view or is afraid to make decisions. But there’s a beauty to the blank-slate possibility of Crain’s vignettes. It almost seems as if she went back through the songs after writing them and cut out the little pieces that became too specifically personal. A lot of writers are too self-centered to do this, compulsively needing to bare themselves to the world. On Songs in the Night, Crain is still naked, but she’s hidden from sight by a humble yet artfully carved dressing screen, leaving the rest to the imagination of the listener.