Samantha Crain leans into her pain. She’s only just approaching 30, but if you listen closely to this woman’s songwriting, it sounds like she’s been through enough to fill half a century. “When you come back would you bring my heart?” she laments on the aptly named “When You Come Back,” the devastating centerpiece off Under Branch & Thorn & Tree. On this bitter barroom ballad, Crain alternates between hoping against hope and setting her heart like flint toward her flimsy former lover. The strength of her pain alone seems like enough to spook any timid-hearted man, so the story of his absence feels inevitable, somehow. Luckily for us, this strength never leaves her, even if lovers do.
When her breakout album, Kid Face, came out in 2013, Crain was was greeted with plenty of Woody Guthrie references (he’s a fellow Oklahoma native) and Americana praise, even though it was her third release. However, it was her first full-length with esteemed indie rocker John Vanderslice handling production, and he seems to have nurtured and tended her earthen sound until it blossomed into something bright and orchestral without losing its roots. Under Branch & Thorn & Tree’s lead single “Outside The Pale” — which we premiered a couple months back — is a scathing indictment of America’s whitewashed culture, and it’s one of the only places her Choctaw heritage is so fiercely in the forefront of her writing. This song speaks with such a ferocious grace that it’s the only time she needs to be as direct, really.
Usually, these songs tell intimate tales with boundless characters. “Elk City” is a song about a daughter who made it out of the tiny town her mother yearned to leave; “You Or Mystery” reflects on a dead neighbor who the narrator never knew outside of brief, everyday glimpses. It’s a beautiful reflection on how the we mourn those we barely knew, and in the process, discover we knew them much better than we realized. “Do I miss you or the mystery?” Crain muses here, and for all the earlier pain in the telling of her own heartbreaks, it’s this existential detachment that hits the listener like a ton of bricks. Crain’s empathy seeps into all her songs like a talisman; it’s what makes them feel comforting even when she’s tackling enormous, gut-wrenching topics. Listen to the entire album in full below.
Under Branch & Thorn & Tree is out 7/17 via Ramseur Records/Full Time Hobby. Pre-order it here.