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Samantha Crain's previous record with producer John Vanderslice, Kid Face, was a collection of rare clarity. The collaborators have returned with another wire-polished gem focused on small town life in a big, big country.

Kin to Conor Oberst as much as her stated idols of Guthrie, Young and Dylan, Crain returns to the fold with Under Branch & Thorn & Tree. Once again, Crain has an accomplished, direct delivery, this time also tied to a more ambitious set of arrangements that lose nothing of the grandeur of previous work while adding in weightier narratives.

Crain and Vanderslice are clearly collaborators who enjoy an instinctive rapport. Captured entirely on two-inch tape without the diversion of the multiplicity of digital production, the performances are immediate without being loose. Crain's work is always taut with sexual pique, and can seem a little aloof; the bruising 'Kathleen' sees her heroine rope and snare her beau while falling in love more deeply with the romance of the night than the imperfect subject of her affections.

Like all good storytelling, Crain's voice maintains pace and momentum. There is a uniquely North American kind of travelling song that is often attempted by artists from other Western cultures without quite ringing true: Americans (including Canadians) have an instinctive sense of scale. Rather than compact, walled narratives, Crain follows the tradition of the homely wanderer, hopping between plain, forest and coastline. Compartmentalised within the small house, the boxcar or the saloon bar, the focus is still always present. 'Elk City' is a very lovely piece of Beat-era country, with its compass of voice spinning, directionless.

Directionless, but certainly not aimless. As I've already said, Samantha Crain's voice is clear. She is happy to let a melody hang over the natural edge of a line, but when it does come to a close it is snappy, and there are relatively few bent notes, an overused commodity in much country. She picks out low and high notes with ease, not settling back into conversational mid-ranges like others are wont to do, usually to establish a lax kind of communication. Crain weighs each word carefully. Where she does allow a little wistfulness, on the briefly dueting 'When You Come Back', it's monumental.

If there is a criticism to be made, it is that at times the whole thing can be a little too low-key. There is no breakout moment among the procession of carefully levelled emotions. One of my favourite albums of last year was the self-titled debut by Arc Iris. Under Branch & Thorn & Tree is less of a big city proposition than that. Its tales are unwound closer to the eye, handwritten letters rather than loudspeaker pronouncements. The care and compassion that has been spent putting the two records together feels familiar, in the literal sense. They could be two sisters; that one, outgoing and brashly talented, and this one haughty, sensual and private.

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