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Samantha Crain’s Hardscrapple Tales Mesmerize

By Michael Fremer | November 13th, 2015

The golden gatefold cover art of Samantha Crain’s Under Branch & Thorn & Tree makes clear that this is not a collection of “good times” tunes, but one is still left unprepared for the relentlessly bleak stories of betrayal, despair and desolation Crain delivers in an often pain-wracked voice that’s somehow wrapped in a soothing, mesmerizing balm.

The opener, “Killer” includes the line “They say the worst is over, the lowest reached/But it’s such a long road, keep on marching!”

“Elk City” revolves around a bar encounter with a stranger and an offer to fix a broken washing machine that leads to “..9 months/Sitting on my ass/Waiting for a baby/My first and my last”. The grown up child gets to college and out of Elk City, but the song’s protagonist is stuck there for good left to sing “I can only stand one more night/Just one more night.”

The one uptempo tune turns out to be another song about being trapped: “I’m stuck on a rock in the middle of the river…until the bed runs dry.”

The album’s two closing songs are about wanting someone back. In one Crain sings about being rich, but only if she had a dollar for “…every minute I’m missing you.” The closer opens with “Counting boxes on the floor/That we’ve marked with my name and yours/Do you want this? Or is this mine?/But you’re all I want…”

The balm in all of this despair is contained both in Crain’s feathery voice that sounds victimized, yet resilient and in the sometimes richly orchestrated arrangements as well as in the superb all-analog sonics produced by an all analog recording tracked on 2″ tape on a Studer and mixed to 1/2″ tape on an Ampex. Electronics were all-tubed, and all of the effects were done in the analog domain via looping and other non-computerized techniques.

After a few plays and with no backgrounder I began wondering who this person was. The geographical references in the songs were Elk City, which could be anywhere. There was a reference to a “four way”, which sounds rural, and in fact the songs exude a flat, desolate landscape.

There’s a reference to the Anadarko Basin, which I promptly looked up, for some reason before Googling “Samantha Crain”. Don’t ask me why. The Anadarko Basin is an enormous geological formation in western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle.

However, everything snapped into focus when I found Samantha Crain’s Wikipedia page. She’s of Choctaw Indian heritage, 29 years old, born and raised in Shawnee, Oklahoma. She has a recorded catalog that includes two earlier LPs, an EP and a 7″ single.

With that background in mind, further plays put the picture into better focus and allowed greater concentration on the musical surroundings. Crain plays acoustic and electric guitars, there are drums, bass, synthesizer and pedal steel guitar, plus on some songs richly orchestrated violin, viola and cello.

The album was recorded and mixed at San Francisco’s Tiny Telephone Studio, produced by John Vanderslice and engineered and mixed by Vanderslice and Jacob Winik. Bernie Grundman mastered from the analog tape, and Quality Record Pressing did the plating and 200 gram pressing.

Despite the first class all-analog recording, mixing, mastering and pressing, the album is available for $19.99 including digital download. A worthy investment if just to support such a high quality AAA project, but highly recommended mostly for Crain’s skilled and unique writing and performing craft.

  • Posted on December 14