In “Blueprints”, Samantha Crain sings, “No matter how much empathy I give / I will never understand your words”. The lines exemplify where Crain is right now. Even at 23 years old and with just one EP and one prior full-length behind her, Crain sounds wise and experienced. She resists the weariness that her lyric might imply, digging instead into the needs of empathy and understanding. Her new record is, after all, titled You (Understood), and it’s a perpetual search for comprehension of another, aware of the impossibility of the quest, but continually optimistic.
If Crain stopped in “Blueprints” with that lack of understanding, it’d be a depressing note about the persistence of alienation, but that’s not the sort of thought that drives this album. She continues by singing, “But you have my heart and all it learns about you”. If we always have gaps around us, we can be closing them, and we can share ourselves across that space.
And that’s all lovey enough, but, again, if Crain left it at that sort of sentiment, the disc would quickly take on a mindless sheen. Crain, who sounds a bit like Feist and a bit like Joanna Newsom and who has a strong folk-rock band at her back, knows it’s not that easy. “Blueprints” acknowledges a certain loss of self, and a naïve hope for change. Connection is worth striving for in Crain’s world, but it doesn’t come easy.
One of the album’s highlights, “Wichitalright”, acknowledges in a slow lament, “It’s a wicked world for you to grow up in / And it’s a thickened skin, the skin you walk around in”. The tracks softly resists growing cold and battles the “fatalistic dreams” that start to creep in. At the same time, Crain reveals guilt. Her singer has brought some of this attitude to the addressed person, by going “too far”. Right and wrong become troubled concepts here. Even as the song protects its optimism, it reveals the strictures that limit hopefulness.
Bagpipes make everything better. Or at least that’s the escape on “Two-Sidedness”, where the singer can’t quit come to grips with the unnamed trauma arising within her current relationship. In the setting, the bagpipes are both appropriate and demanding. The band stretches here, but it hasn’t been at ease throughout the album. Crain has consistently been rocking up a basic folk grounding (maybe gone from that center by this point even), and the band is at times melodic, moody, and even jangly (most notably on the opening track, “Lions”). The flexibility of the band within a general sounds keeps the album from ever finding a rut, and the bagpipes create the peak musical break, maximizing the experience of one of the disc’s more emotionally demanding cuts.
Whether cut, broken, or hurt, Crain remains constant in her hopefulness. You get the sense that she hasn’t seen what she’s looking for, but that’s the very essence of hope. The realistic side of her thought makes the resulting drive one of fortitude as much as of expectation. Filtering optimism through resilience makes You (Understood) as mature as it is compelling.
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// Notes from the Road
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