Samantha Crain’s fourth album, Under Branch & Thorn & Tree, is both defiant and sorrowful in equal measure. In the spirit of folk and country tradition, there are long narrative character studies and songs concerning familiar topics like protest and heart-break. Crain dwells on the struggles of ordinary people, revealing a poetic beauty in the seemingly prosaic trials of everyday life.
Crain insists that she doesn’t write conventional protest songs and it would be wrong to characterise this as a protest album. But in the unfolding of her lyrics there are clear swipes at contemporary American society and an expression of solidarity with the unrepresented, neglected and exploited. “You and I will tell the stories, the TV won’t release, they keep us in the wild” she challenges on Outside the Pale, reminding the powerful capitalist elite “we run this damn machine.”
Elk City is a true-life portrait of a woman abandoned in a one-horse town by her boyfriend who becomes pregnant and never finds a way out. It’s a heart-breaking track and a highlight of the album. “Get me out of this town, get me out of this dream,” she pleads but even her daughter makes it out first: “she’s all grown up now, got into college and everything, beat her mom outta that town.” It’s an unflinching look at the lack of options available to working class women in small-town America. “I can only stay one more night,” she tells herself, taking comfort in the self-deception.
If I Had A Dollar (“for every time I’m missing you”) and When You Come Back (“can you bring my heart”) return to the more conventional territory of lost love and love gone wrong but are affecting nonetheless. The simple no-frills lyricism of lines like “when you go to the bar can you not bring her,” and “get outta my head, get outta my dreams, I’m so tired and I’m losing steam,” give the words greater emotional heft.
Samantha Crain’s distinctive and soulful voice is a large part of what makes this such an affecting album. There is a rough, husky quality to her singing which, combined with her tendency to stretch and lengthen particular notes, gives her lyrics an aching, emotive power. This singing style really shines through on album closer, Moving Day: “you’re all I want,” Crain yearns. However, it’s fair to say her voice is equally at home the more up-tempo tracks; she gives real swing to Bluesy country-rocker, Big Rock, (which sounds vaguely like a Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty era Grateful Dead track).
Producer John Vanderslide has rendered a sympathetic and varied production to the album with synths just as commonplace as wailing pedal-steel guitar. This places Under Branch & Thorn & Tree midway between roots nostalgia and modern alt-Folk. Crain spent last year touring with First Aid Kit but, while they do share some obvious similarities, this is a much earthier sound than the Swedish duo’s own shimmering country-pop. Enveloping layers of mournful pedal-steel guitars and strings accompany the quieter tracks, conjuring visions of lazy dusty prairies. The more upbeat tracks sometimes stray towards 90s alternative rock territory with catchy percussive guitar strumming, bass hooks and simple drumming.
Opening track Killer feels a little incongruous compared to the rest of the album with its swirling synths but is a real grower nonetheless. With largely sombre subject matter, feel-good country rocker, Big Rock, definitely provides a necessary addition of light relief. However, these really are very minor complaints. This is a lyrically strong album with interesting arrangements, elevated by Samantha Crain’s heartfelt singing.
Review by: Mark Roberts
Under Branch & Thorn &b Tree is out now
Order it via Amazon
UK Tour Dates
31 Jul – Perth, Southern Fried Roots Festival
01 Aug – Perth, Southern Fried Roots Festival
02 Aug – Glasgow, Broadcast
03 Aug – Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
04 Aug – Manchester, Gullivers
05 Aug – Bristol, The Louisiana
06 Aug – London, Sebright Arms
07 Aug – Brighton, The Latest Music Bar
Photo Credit: David McClister