REVIEW: Samantha Crain’s “A Small Death” Truly Stands Out


Ever gone to a show and had an opening act grab you, to the point that you almost forgot whom you actually paid to see? Oklahoma’s Samantha Crain did just that to me a couple of years back. Just her songs, her guitar and her haunting voice were enough to hold my attention well past the 45 minutes or so she was on stage (check out “Elk City” from 2015’s Under Branch & Thorn & Tree to get an idea of what captured my attention). Listening to her albums, I found an even deeper, more developed sound. Now, on her newest release, A Small Death, Crain has backed her lyrics with fully rounded, almost lush arrangements that make the songs truly stand out.

The lead track on the album, “An Echo,” finds Crain revisiting recent traumas, both personal – “The air became so thick/We couldn’t reach to the other” – and physical – “”When my hands appeared so useless/I felt like a little baby” (Crain suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis, not exactly beneficial when one plays guitar for a living). As the music (punctuated with steel guitar and woodwinds) swells and Crain’s voice becomes more insistent, she begins to reach a point where she can see moving on – “We never said the things we need to/But an echo fades eventually.”

While many of the tunes on the album feature that expansive sound, others have a definite indie quality to them. “Pastime” is mid-tempo folk that borders on pop and has Crain looking back at her own youthful missteps – “Falling in love was a pastime/I practice every chance I got.” She also explores that period of her life in “Reunion” through the lens of that titular gathering (in this case, 10 years after high school). It turns out that little has changed in that decade, either for Crain (“I’m fittin’ in/My accent’s back again”) or her erstwhile classmates (“Wallet pictures and TV dinners/Tell me all about how it’s working out”).

Like reunions (and “Reunion”s), much of A Small Death has Crain with one foot in the past and the other pointed forward. “Joey,” set rather simply on acoustic guitar, bass and accordion, features the singer trying to recall perhaps the last good time she had – “Sometimes I feel like my memories never happened/Could you remind me, take me back for a night?” She describes “Tough for You” as “a real therapy song,” and it is – she tries to figure out why she’s tough for others, which ends up making things harder for herself. “When We Remain” dives deepest into her past – it’s sung in Choctaw, the language of her ancestors. And “Holding to the Edge of Night,” one of the biggest sounding songs on the record, represents dreams vs. reality – “My deepest true desires/Interrupted with the dawn.” With an album like A Small Death, Crain has more than earned a graduation to more headliner gigs. After the pandemic settles, she should realize that particular dream.

A Small Death was produced by Samantha Crain, engineered by Brine Webb, mixed by Eric Wofford and mastered by Jeff Lipton and Maria Rice. All songs were written by Crain, except for “Garden Dove,” which was penned by Crain, Henry Baker and Ben Wigler. Musicians on the album include Crain (acoustic guitar, keyboards and synthesizers, percussion), Webb (bass guitar, background vocals, sound effects, tape loops), Paddy Ryan (drums), John Calvin Abney (piano, acoustic guitar), Kyle Reid (pedal steel, MPC programming), David Leach (upright bass), Dan Walker (accordion), Trevor Galvin (saxophone, clarinet), Garrison Brown (trumpet), and Joanna Grace Babb (background vocals).

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