An Evocative Effort From A Rising Star
Samantha Crain isn’t new to the game of putting out confessional-style, melody-driven indie rock records. Her latest effort, You Had Me At Goodbye, is her fifth album, and her most recent output with Ramseur Records since 2015’s Under Branch & Thorn & Tree. But it might prove to be her most successful yet, as the 30-year-old Oklahoma native with a velvet-rich voice and natural flair for acoustic guitar, is witty and insightful, strong and vulnerable, crafting songs with a pensive touch no matter the tempo or rhythm.
The album opens on a wry note. The dryly titled “Antiseptic Greeting” features retro-sounding auxiliary, a poppy drum beat and warm key tones. Crain kicks off the album in the form of a narrator, explaining the goings-on of her mind as she sees those she knows or spends a day in a coffee shop, explaining the all-too-familiar contrast between how one comes off and how one really feels. “I know it’s an antiseptic greeting / man, you think I could do better but I don’t think I can,” she sings. The song, a standout single, lays out her personality: thoughtful, self-aware and sassy, even when being self-deprecating.
Track two, “Oh Dear Louis,” which came out as a single earlier this year, is peppy and peppered with harmonies. Then, “Loneliest Handsome Man” introduces listeners to Crain’s strongest offerings — her ballads, at least on this record. She’s got a bit of world-wearied drawl in her voice that really comes to the forefront in the slower tracks, and, accented by string and piano, Crain sounds less punk-edged, grungy folk rocker and more art-rock, soulful practitioner of song.
“Wise One,” with a groovy drum beat and funky, airy flute-sounds, has a little bit of a trippy vibe, with Crain’s voice holding down the center. “Red Sky, Blue Mountain” features Crain singing in the native Choctaw language; it boasts a gorgeous melody and is a chilling song that merits multiple listens. It’s also one of her best vocal performances, allowing her voice to travel throughout her range.
Crain’s voice is guttural and rich, but not overpowering or overly aggressive; instead she displays a beautiful strength and ability to soar high. She uses her range well, not being afraid to reach up to grab the high notes or stretch out lower ones for a full sound. There’s a confidence to her delivery that must be the result of years of practice and effort — but just as likely, the reflection of Crain’s own soul.
The album strikes a balance between such quiet moments and big, broader sounds, like the flirty “Smile When” that has funky synth tones to keep things from getting too saccharine, showing off that fine line between feeling interested and feeling nervous. As fun a song as it is, the most memorable track comes after that. “Betty’s Eulogy” is a ballad with a simple guitar line, delicate harmonies and string accompaniment that adds a deep and moving quality. The song is a heartfelt dedication as well as a call to live a life to its fullest: “Let me live until I die,” goes the memorable refrain. It’s a song full of detail and pretty arrangements, and it makes Crain standout as a musician who can go beyond trends, beyond genres and into the realm of being a strong songwriter.
“Windmill Crusader” turns up the dial again, with more synth tones and swingy changes in tempo. Then, “When the Roses Bloom Again” slows things down again with a moody tone and the sad, poignant pining of saying goodbye until another season. Album closer “Wreck” appears to nod to the Okie red dirt roots Crain knows as home, with whining steel strings and cutthroat delivery a la Johnny Cash: “I don’t want to be the wreck that burns and burns and burns.” It is three minutes of unabashed poetic confession, set to a stunning background that shows Crain at her best.
With You Had Me At Goodbye, Crain offers a glimpse into the musings of a mature and self-aware soul, one who observes herself as much as the world around her. Her musical sensibilities are equally wise, standing strong in an acoustic setting or adorned by other players and harmonies. This is a record that deserves notice, and deserves mention, for being as unique, original and memorable as Crain herself.