Samantha Crain sings and songwrites a music that feels firmly grounded in a pastoral landscape: this could indeed have been played Under Branch & Thorn & Tree. Arrangements involve prominent fiddle and acoustic guitar, always subtly constructed, and Crain’s vocals have a rich grain to them. On Full Time Hobby.
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Unless there was a recording studio under that branch, thorn and tree, I contest this record’s pastoral chops. Samantha Crain has made a fine record, here, but it’s not the sparse folk story you might expect, involving instead a great deal of enigmatic production and electronic supplementing. Though Crain has her guitar and voice to lead us in with, these songs sparkle with languishing synth chords and twinkling keyboards -- it’s countrified, of course, but sometimes country needs a helping hand, and the double bill of “Killer” and “Kathleen” suggest an artist halfway between proper electro pop and the organic folk rock keys of Okkervil River.
“Elk City” is proof of the genius songwriter Crain can be: singing with futility against a dramatic rise of strings and twang that seems to pull her in the other direction, she eventually cracks through for a chorus of conviction and plain words. Here, Crain eschews her long, confessional storytelling for choruses of unabridged emotion, using three words to elucidate verses as long as lists. The melodies are beautiful, too, by the way, and they’re only highlighted by the busy arrangements that brought them here.
As grossly traditionalist as it sounds, it’s the less electronically enhanced moments that strike me on ‘Under Branch, Thorn & Tree’. It’s the violin’s hurried fury, reminiscent of an ‘Axxess and Ace’-era Molina, that makes “Outside The Pale” hit; it’s the way the lethargic acoustic meander of “You Or Mystery” is kept on lockdown, only occasionally flourished with twang; it's the way that “When You Come Back” is soppy but not symphonic. The slight electronic experiments that the record opens with subside for the most part, and while that’s not a rule of thumb that all artists should follow, Crain's no frills folk songs are the ones that get me.
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