Samantha Crain | A Small Death | (Ramseur/Thirty Tigers/Real Kind)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Ready, set…get sad.
Acclaimed singer/songwriter Samantha Crain has released her first album in three years. It’s the first since recovering from a debilitating illness which created such severe physical pain she was bedridden and couldn’t play or perform. This disc’s title, her sixth, implies the issues she persevered over to craft these eleven tracks.
Opening “The Echo” with lyrics “But then became the summer when my hands appeared so useless/I felt like a little baby and my pride evaporated like the water in a skillet…” just scratches the surface of the intense feelings stirred up in these often harrowing but passionately played and sung pieces.
Musically, it’s not all gloomy. Crain takes over the producer’s chair from veteran John Vanderslice (who successfully helmed her previous three releases) bringing in such unlikely instruments as pedal steel, trumpet, clarinet, accordion and saxophone, all infusing subtle textures to songs that might otherwise buckle under their lyrical weight. “When We Remain”’s lyrics of “When we remain, we will be the flowers and the trees and the vines that overcome the forgotten city,” is sung in both Choctaw and English (Crain is of Native American descent).
There are more moments like those in the stark, slow, melancholy “High Horse” where she says “I know the shape of a great heartache/I know the weight of a big mistake/I know the sound of a warm crescendo falling away,” than there are somewhat lighter passages such as “Pastime”’s yearning “And it feels like… you were always there.”
Crain’s striking vocals wrap around her indie folk/rockers with requisite sensitivity and intensity. She sounds appropriately dreamy on “Holding to the Edge of Night” then shifts into a thrilling higher register on the chorus of “And it is so good around you” in “Garden Dove.” She delves into this often wincingly personal material with a passion and honesty that can only emerge from deep within. There are times when it seems like you’re spying on the artist as she sings her penetratingly intimate lyrics. Tunes like “Tough for You” recount a story that is likely ripped from her past. Its words of “I bit through my top lip when I was a kid and a ball of scar’s still there/And I remember so clearly the blood everywhere/A quivering chin and a single tear” reflect that often dark approach.
Listening closely to A Small Death (pre-order/pre-save) all the way through is like watching a melodramatic foreign movie; spellbinding and deliberately paced with an ambiance that leaves you reflective but anticipating better times are (hopefully) ahead.