Album Review: Samantha Crain, ‘Under Branch & Thorn & Tree’
On her fourth album, Oklahoman singer-songwriter Samantha Crain departs sharply from the autobiographical tone of her last effort, 2013's Kid City. This time, Crain embraces a collective worldview and gives voice to the struggles of various narrators from what she imagines their perspectives might be. And, while some listeners might from their own day-to-day experiences recognize the folks who inhabit this album, Crain's ability to fill their shoes implores us to pay better attention to those beside whom we live and struggle.
Crain, who made headlines last year protesting Pink Pony frontwoman Christina Fallin's (Wayne Coyne-backed) appropriation of traditional Native American headdress, has repeatedly described Under Branch & Thorn & Tree as her "protest album." Listeners, no doubt, have an established archetype for what that term entails, but it's a testament to Crain's empathy as a songwriter that she doesn't succumb to polemical declarations or, worse, patronizing her subjects. In fact, the portraits she paints throughout this new set of songs move the listener from much the same angle as any of her older material that draws on her own life.
In her life away from music, Crain waits tables and remains conscious of what it means to be Native American and female in a society that still hasn't found a way to properly value those traits. Stepping outside of herself, she shows little trouble relating to the people in these songs. And, while she is often tagged as a folk-Americana artist, her music sometimes flows with the brooding intensity of a rock band. Her new song "Outside the Pale," for example, builds not unlike a Zeppelin or Chris Cornell tune, only without the bombast. Likewise, woozy keyboards and crackling snare land album opener "Killer" closer to experimental rock than any of the artists we might lump Crain in with if we were being lazy.
With Under Branch & Thorn & Tree, Crain has broadened her outlook, but it's also refreshing to see her take Americana and folk outside of their established parameters.