CD Reviews: Samantha Crain, Jason Michael Carroll and Buju Banton

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Samantha Crain & the Midnight Shivers

It's tempting, on first listen, to lump Samantha Crain in with the freak-folk movement that's made all things fey and whimsical fashionable again. Ultimately, though, the backbeat on the Oklahoma native's full-length debut is too firm, her reedlike warble too earthy and her evocative lyrics too grounded in experience to be relegated to such ephemeral margins. "I will give in to the dark clouds, and I will sing with the fog in my throat," Crain, a Choctaw Indian, declares, her voice a mix of vulnerability and resolve, to the cantering rhythms of "Rising Sun," the gorgeous folk-rock number that opens the album. The title track offers more of the same, except with more muscular guitars and a surging chorus.

These fairly ebullient moments notwithstanding -- and as her band's name suggests -- the prevailing mood here is nocturnal, or at least penumbral. Even would-be psychedelia like "Bananafish Revolution," where Crain asserts, "The trees were my audience applauding/That chair, I swear it was a cat for my company," turns sober. "That piano," she goes on to reveal, echoed by some eerie plinking, "it's the angels/Calling me home."

Harmonically, some of the tracks recall rootsy Neil Young ("Long Division") or Bob Dylan ("You Never Know"), while more headlong numbers like "Bullfight" and "Get the Fever Out" could have been made only in the frenetic wake of '90s girl-punk. Galvanizing every performance, regardless of arrangement, is Crain's sirenlike voice -- a keening instrument that, in terms of timbre and phrasing, is utterly narcotic.

Samantha Crain will perform at the Kennedy Center on July 10 and the National Museum of the American on Indian July 11.

-- Bill Friskics-Warren

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Rising Sun," "Songs in the Night," "Get the Fever Out"


Jason Michael Carroll

Unblemished by an original thought, impressively resistant to shame, Jason Michael Carroll's sophomore effort, "Growing Up Is Getting Old," isn't so much an album as an expertly assembled collection of country music tropes. Blessed with a ran gy baritone and an inability to sound insincere, Carroll is a hat act without the hat, a hydra-headed, insistently likable amalgam of Keith Urban (the manful ballads, the sparkly teeth), Jason Aldean (the politely butt-kicking Southern rock lite) and Trace Adkins (everything else).

"Getting Old" reworks (and sometimes betters) a variety of hoary Nashville lyrical cliches, which is why it will sound familiar to anyone who has ever heard a country album. Or any other kind of album. Its reincarnated themes include:

-- The spirited defense of small-town virtues, which no one was really attacking, anyway: "Where I'm From," a chest-thumper that was better when it was called "Back Where I Come From," and Kenny Chesney sang it.

-- The ode to young rednecks whose love can never be: The masterful "Let Me Go."

-- The Sorry Honey, Daddy Can't Come Home Right Now tearjerker: "Tears," part of a thriving sub-genre of divorced-father ballads.

-- The Saturday night barnburner: The penultimate track, "Barn Burner." Because by that point, nobody was really trying very hard.

-- The homage to his musical forebears: "That's All I Know," a weirdly belligerent cousin to "Where I'm From." "I think Willie and Haggard wrote some awful good songs," sings Carroll, controversially. "I think God rides around with the radio on." If that's the case, He's probably pretty mad. Because He's heard this song before.

Jason Michael Carroll performs at Nissan Pavilion on May 9.

-- Allison Stewart

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Let Me Go," "Happened on a Saturday Night (Suzie Q)"


Buju Banton

"Boom Bye Bye," an unmistakable call to anti-gay violence recorded 17 years ago, probably will continue to cast a pall on dance-hall reggae singer Buju Banton's career. Despite recent overtures toward reconciliation, Banton has remained vague on the song's legacy, and homosexuality in general.

Banton's ambivalence toward "Boom Bye Bye" seems even more ludicrous when you consider he was one of the first major dance-hall stars to embrace the Rastafarian spirituality from the Bob Marley era. That's the one-love vision we get on "Rasta Got Soul," albeit wedded to reggae of a particularly tepid, glitzy sort. Sonically, the album is both sterile and cliched, the sort of thing a glib TV producer might request as bumper music for a Caribbean travelogue.

Banton's legacy wouldn't be so controversial if he lacked talent, and there are hints of his old vocal power throughout "Rasta Got Soul." But not even Banton's warm burr could make the sickly soft-pop keyboards of "Mary" palatable, or excuse the sentimental indulgence of a baby's coos in the already cloying "Bedtime Story." Track after track of lilting flutes, strummed guitars and oh-so-gentle rhythms becomes so much Rasta-tinted wallpaper.

Ultimately that's why the problem with "Rasta Got Soul" goes beyond the contradictory moral impulses running through Banton's worldview. It flops because his messages, good and bad alike, are delivered via such a stale sound.

-- Jess Harvell

DOWNLOAD THESE: "A Little Bit of Sorry," "Lend a Hand"

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