Earnest Oklahoma singer/songwriter crafts impressive debut LP
A few months ago, Samantha Crain & the Midnight Shivers stopped by Paste for an in-studio performance to promote her forthcoming full-length debut, Songs in the Night. Witnessing the unaffected 21-year-old singer/songwriter belting, eyes closed, pretty-but-plain brown hair cascading over her shoulders, her preciousness seemed far less manufactured than many of the artists with whom she might be compared. Mystical, harp-toting songstress Joanna Newsom comes to mind.
Though arguably the more creatively ambitious of the two, Newsom’s high-art approach can feel forced, while Crain is less self-conscious and more down-home. The native Oklahoman offers a more populist/realist slant on freak-folk, a subgenre that sometimes makes suspension of disbelief a little difficult, what with all the fairies, stable boys and enchanted forests.
The most noticeable similarity between Crain and Newsom is their quivering vocal delivery, but they’re hardly the only ones embracing this style. So many modern female vocalists sing with a similar affectation: Feist, Jolie Holland, My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden—even Paramore’s Haley Williams. It’s a distinct but no longer unique approach. Still, Crain does it as well as any of them, and her strong songwriting, able backing band (especially Stephen Sebastian, whose impeccable electric-guitar work is Songs’ secret weapon) and wide variety of subtly incorporated influences help her transcend an overdone singing style.
Ironically, Songs in the Night kicks off just as a new day begins. Stripped down and earthy, opening track “Rising Sun” seems to set the table for a freak-folk feast, as Crain warbles affectingly, asking a potential suitor to see the good in her (“Look into my eyes … come and see the rising sun … it’s about to break”). But—while the music feels timeless—Crain isn’t in a chariot, she’s in a car, and the suitor’s not a minotaur, just a regular-old human being.
From this point, Crain begins branching out sonically. The next song, the album’s title track, shuffles along to a walking bass line and jangly electric guitar before erupting with a playful folk-pop chorus that’s equally indebted to Jewel, Western swing and ’60s girl groups. “Bullfight (Change Your Mind)” sounds like The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” covered by spaghetti-Western rockers The Sadies. “Get the Fever Out” teeters on the brink of straight-up modern indie pop a la The Shins or Band of Horses, minus the shiny synths and cavernous reverb. “Long Division” incorporates elements of classic country, and also some laidback trombones that point toward New Orleans, though in the more sober days following Fat Tuesday. And “Bannafish Revolution” snakes northeast toward Depression-era New York, with snatches of smoky horns creating a “Minnie the Moocher”-style cabaret vibe.
Even with all of these different sounds seeping into the mix, Songs in the Night—produced, engineered and mixed by Danny Kadar (My Morning Jacket, The Avett Brothers)—is surprisingly cohesive, tied together by underlying British-folk revivalisms, Crain’s uncrowded vocals and the carefully limited instrumental palette (almost exclusively: one acoustic guitar, one electric guitar, bass, drums with brushes). Sure, the sound is filled out by the aforementioned horns, and touches of mandolin, Wurlitzer and piano, but the overall approach favors simplicity, and it works.
Lyrically, Crain avoids heavy-handedness. Some might argue that her vagueness is lazy; that she has no point of view or is afraid to make decisions. But there’s a beauty to the blank-slate possibility of her vignettes. It seems as if Crain went back through the songs after writing them and cut out the little pieces that became too specifically personal. A lot of writers are too self-centered to do this, compulsively needing to bare themselves to the world. On Songs in the Night, Crain is naked, too, but she’s hidden from sight by a humble yet artfully carved dressing screen, leaving the rest to the listener’s imagination.
Listen to tracks from Samantha Crain & the Midnight Shivers' Songs in the Night on their MySpace.