Samantha Crain's Hardscrapple Tales Mesmerize

The golden gatefold cover art of Samantha Crain's Under Branch & Thorn & Tree makes clear that this is not a collection of "good times" tunes, but one is still left unprepared for the relentlessly bleak stories of betrayal, despair and desolation Crain delivers in an often pain-wracked voice that's somehow wrapped in a soothing, mesmerizing balm.

The opener, "Killer" includes the line "They say the worst is over, the lowest reached/But it's such a long road, keep on marching!"

"Elk City" revolves around a bar encounter with a stranger and an offer to fix a broken washing machine that leads to "..9 months/Sitting on my ass/Waiting for a baby/My first and my last". The grown up child gets to college and out of Elk City, but the song's protagonist is stuck there for good left to sing "I can only stand one more night/Just one more night."

The one uptempo tune turns out to be another song about being trapped: "I'm stuck on a rock in the middle of the river...until the bed runs dry."

The album's two closing songs are about wanting someone back. In one Crain sings about being rich, but only if she had a dollar for "...every minute I'm missing you." The closer opens with "Counting boxes on the floor/That we've marked with my name and yours/Do you want this? Or is this mine?/But you're all I want..."

The balm in all of this despair is contained both in Crain's feathery voice that sounds victimized, yet resilient and in the sometimes richly orchestrated arrangements as well as in the superb all-analog sonics produced by an all analog recording tracked on 2" tape on a Studer and mixed to 1/2" tape on an Ampex. Electronics were all-tubed, and all of the effects were done in the analog domain via looping and other non-computerized techniques.

After a few plays and with no backgrounder I began wondering who this person was. The geographical references in the songs were Elk City, which could be anywhere. There was a reference to a "four way", which sounds rural, and in fact the songs exude a flat, desolate landscape.

There's a reference to the Anadarko Basin, which I promptly looked up, for some reason before Googling "Samantha Crain". Don't ask me why. The Anadarko Basin is an enormous geological formation in western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle.

However, everything snapped into focus when I found Samantha Crain's Wikipedia page. She's of Choctaw Indian heritage, 29 years old, born and raised in Shawnee, Oklahoma. She has a recorded catalog that includes two earlier LPs, an EP and a 7" single.

With that background in mind, further plays put the picture into better focus and allowed greater concentration on the musical surroundings. Crain plays acoustic and electric guitars, there are drums, bass, synthesizer and pedal steel guitar, plus on some songs richly orchestrated violin, viola and cello.

The album was recorded and mixed at San Francisco's Tiny Telephone Studio, produced by John Vanderslice and engineered and mixed by Vanderslice and Jacob Winik. Bernie Grundman mastered from the analog tape, and Quality Record Pressing did the plating and 200 gram pressing.

Despite the first class all-analog recording, mixing, mastering and pressing, the album is available for $19.99 including digital download. A worthy investment if just to support such a high quality AAA project, but highly recommended mostly for Crain's skilled and unique writing and performing craft.

With kind permission of Ramseur Records, please stream "Elk City" in its entirety, ripped here at 96/24 from the vinyl record:

"Elk City"

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Steelhead's picture

Damn, She just had a concert up here that I bagged out on going to. It was very well reviewed and word on the street was that it was one enthralling show.

Thanks for reviewing this and I will pick it up and give it a spin.

pablo-1's picture

I bought this after hearing Elk City on Analog Planet Radio. I think it's wonderful. Moving, well recorded and beautifully sung. It's also great to be buying new vinyl of this quality again on a regular basis. My wife says I'm going to have to put up extra shelving to store it all. Keep up the good work Mikey!

otaku2's picture

I think you meant hardscrabble.

Michael Fremer's picture
either spelling. I looked it up before using it!
okiejerry's picture

Sam's a great person, inside and out. Thanks, Michael, for bringing this superb album to a greater audience.

mraudioguru's picture

...hope it's good.

ramseurrecords's picture

John Vanderslice is a super talented producer. John went the extra mile in every way possible with this recording. He traveled from San Fran to LA so he could personally be with Bernie as he cut the lacquers. He wanted to be able to share with Bernie his notes about the tapes, fade ins and correct spacing between the tracks.

Putting out records is no way to make money. Releasing records that are all analog just adds assurance that one will not make money. I remember weighing all of the issues: recording to tape, using Bernie, 200 grams, pressing it at QRP, using a thicker paper for the jacket, using an embossed photo on the cover, etc... The thing that sent me over the tipping point was an email one night as I asked John his opinion about all of this. He weighed in and finished with "I would like to make this the best record EVER!!!" How could I refuse to go the extra mile for him and Samantha?

None of this would have been possible without Samantha Crain putting in the same amount of passion as John with her handmade crafted songs and performances. She is one hell of a singer-writer. She is a one off. When you hear her sing you know its her (Yes...Samantha was at this long before Lorde). I started working with Samantha in 2008. She has continued to work at her craft. She keeps pushing herself artistically. Its great to work with someone that wants to keep getting better.

Thanks for lending an ear.

Yours In Truth,
Dolphus Ramseur, Ramseur Records

David_A's picture


This is truly a great record. I wonder if the european release differs from the Ramseur Records release?

Best regards, David

Analog Aecad's picture


David_A's picture


This is truly a great record. I wonder if the european release differs from the Ramseur Records release?

Best regards, David

JEB-42's picture

Picked it up from Samantha's KungFu Store.

ramseurrecords's picture

Some info on the UK/Europe pressing;

The lacquers were shipped from the USA to MPO where it was pressed on 180g vinyl.

Garbia's picture

I bought it from Amazon UK Marketplace seller Dodax-UK, and got QRP pressing, which is really great. MPO is OK pressing plant but not the quality of QRP. BTW. really great music indeed. Uncle Neil came quickly on my mind....