Raine Hamilton’s debut EP, Small Packages, lives up to its promise in more ways than one. Sure, it’s an obvious nod to the short sample she’s using to tease a full-length release (possibly next summer) but it also refers to her size. The folk singer-songwriter refers to herself as “a cross between a shorter, more musical Tina Fey, and a shorter, funnier Joni Mitchell,” and her height is apparently the talk of her audiences.
Although, that Hamilton’s height should be what sticks in the mind after listening to her voice comes as a surprise. With the quick blurb she uses to describe herself, I was stunned to hear something as clear and delicate as her voice ring out—commanding attention with its sensitive, open approach.
That charming instrument is paired with the band she used to record the EP, including Quintin Bart on bass, Julian Bradford on cello, Donovan Locken on mandolin and her father, Bill Hamilton, on guitar. Though originally a violinist—the instrument she picked up at seven and studied with—she takes over guitar duties while touring solo.
But the Winnipeg native takes advantage of the added hands to add a full, bluegrass feel to opener “Time,” perfectly encapsulating the near-frantic pace of modern life while questioning both its absence and our need to keep racing along. As Hamilton sings “There’s a future bright and distant/You’ll know it in an instant/When it’s gone” and the banjo picks up the kind of rhythm that evokes a train speeding along, it’s easy to find yourself reflecting on how time increasingly feels as though it’s slipping out of your grasp.
Perhaps that’s why the three-song EP is bookended so perfectly, as “My Own Way” appears as Hamilton’s manifesto to strike out on her own instead of fitting in with the so-called “norm.” Almost as though reacting to the promised freedom, her voice explodes magnificently over the flurry of notes from the mandolin and violin. While it’s obvious some of the things she’s anticipating might still be dreams years from realization, there’s an epic quality to the song that makes the fantasy tempting to the ears and mind of the listener—as though we might also achieve that magnitude.
As deeply personal as that message is, “January” feels like the most exposed song on the EP as Hamilton embraces the bluegrass and folk traditions with her own storytelling woven into the gently strummed chords. While there are more layers to the song, the dominant force is Hamilton’s voice singing along with the perfect simplicity of the guitar to match the narrative, “My promises I could not keep/That I’d never break your heart/That I am yours, you are mine.” Hamilton’s take on the ending of the relationship spins the tradition on its head as she slowly unravels the story with an honesty that’s impossible to resist.
Small Packages offers a tantalizing glimpse of what should follow with a full-length release, whether with another band or even more of the simplicity that made “January” such a stunning song. Already there are signs of versatility that should take advantage of Hamilton’s skill without overusing any one element of it, from the energetic notes of “Time” to the anthemic qualities of “My Own Way,” and with a rich musical history at play in her creation, there’s plenty of promise to be teased out of such a short entrance.
Top Track: “January”
Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good) + *swoop*