Samantha Crain, 'Kid Face' (Ramseur)

7
Kid Face
Critical Mass
Release Date: February 19, 2013
Label: Ramseur

by David Menconi

It's the folkie conundrum: For all the music's emphasis on rootedness and connection to place, it is nevertheless bound to ramble, bringing out the restless wanderlust in everyone who plays it. Americana princess Samantha Crain, who hails from über-troubadour Woody Guthrie's home state of Oklahoma, is no exception. Her third full-length album is another collection of down-home songs from the road, a tension you feel with every note she sings.

A tiny, 26-year-old singer-songwriter of Choctaw Indian descent, Crain could still pass for a teenager, an illusion that vanishes as soon as she opens her mouth. Her powerhouse wail cuts to the quick, an oddly fascinating combination of booming power and quavering vulnerability. That's perhaps a recipe for oversinging, but she always lands on just the right side of that line, and her voice has never been more up-front than on Kid Face.

Sympathetically produced by John Vanderslice (a kindred spirit who understands this sort of emotionalism perfectly), the 11 songs here are as confident in execution as they are uncertain in lyrical sentiment. And Crain's unreliable-narrator persona has an added wrinkle this time: She's insisted that Kid Face is her first "completely autobiographical" record. Which is probably sincere, even if "Taught to Lie" hedges with the declaration, "Late in the night / I've learned to tell the truth sometimes."

But even if her words leave her an out or two, Crain's voice is never less than fully engaged. It takes bravery to sing this openly and unadorned, and she deftly conveys the small-wonder pleasures and pains of everyday existence. From planning around her beat-up car's next mechanical breakdown ("Somewhere All the Time") to sighing with relief over escaping the clutches of a man who was bad for her (the album-opening "Never Going Back"), you can picture her at a notebook, pursing her lips to remember the real-life details.

Vanderslice's arrangements glide between loping acoustic strums, delicate picking, and stately piano chords, though for such a quiet affair, Kid Face has a surprisingly sturdy bottom end. The mysteriously titled "Churchill" is mostly low notes as Crane murmurs her confession: "My whole life I thought I was an opportunist / But I'm not." No, she's too kind for that, and it's a mindset she's trying to spread around. Even "Sand Paintings," which presents her in the harshest light yet, has a sentiment we'd all do well to follow: "I won't be hard on myself if you'll be kind to you."

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