The long-in-coming return of Memphis-bred troubadour Cory Branan.
It's been six years since Memphis/North Mississippi-bred and now Nashville-based singer-songwriter Cory Branan released an album. And even that's being generous. Branan's first two albums — 2001's The Hell You Say and 2006's 12 Songs — were released via the now mostly dormant local indie MADJACK Records. Despite a publicity bubble that landed Branan in Rolling Stone and on David Letterman, the albums didn't have much national penetration.
The years in between have seen Branan bounce around — Fayetteville, Austin, Nashville, etc. — and spend more time touring than he did early in his career. And now, with Mutt, released May 22nd on venerable Chicago-based roots-rock indie label Bloodshot Records, Branan's recording career is getting a long-delayed second life.
Recorded a couple of years ago in San Francisco with help from another Memphis ex-pat, John Murry, the album opens audaciously: "The Corner" is a sardonic deconstruction of Branan's own good press and gallows-humor appraisal of his wayward career. "I ain't been transcending ... much of nothing," Branan sings, snickering at an ill-chosen word from an uncomprehending rave, before twisting the knife on himself: "I been down in it/I ain't free/Weren't no experiment/These seven years they went like life out of me." But Branan also invests the song with a crack of hope — "almost gone but maybe not just yet" — and the rest of the album testifies to a talent that has remained sharp through the disappointments and delays.
"Survivor Blues" is an escape scenario in the Springsteenian ("Thunder Road," "Born To Run") tradition, but the romance is laced with a darker, more dangerous undercurrent. When a love interest asks the narrator if he's got a car, the affirmation comes with a warning: "It's parked out back/It's pointed out of state/A recent acquisition/We should probably ditch the plates." "Survivor Blues" is reprised at the end in a more subdued manner that highlights the song's hard wisdom: "How about you wait to see just what you regret/Til we get what we get." And the swaggering "Badman" doubles down on a similar scenario, with Branan pleading his case: "They say I'm a bad man ... I think a bad man would do you good."
"Yesterday," with its hints of "Jack & Diane," moves the record into sunnier but reflective territory, equating nature, memory, and eroticism in the manner of previous Branan standout "Tall Green Grass" and imbuing romantic recollections with comically religious significance ("When you walked on the waterbed").
As on Branan's previous albums, there's full-band production here, with arena-ready guitar riffs, chiming piano flourishes, horns, and other sonic touches. More than just a folkie, Branan prefers to lace his words-first songs with a dynamic musicality that matches his at times overactive vocals. Harder to replicate solo-acoustic on the road, no doubt. But it generally makes for better albums.
When Mutt ventures furthest from folk and roots-rock, as it does in its second half, it feels less certain. The Tom Waits-style crooning of "There There Little Heartbreaker," the Latin-jazz-flavored "Snowman," and the multi-tracked, Beach Boys-esque vocals on "Jericho" are worthy experiments that don't entirely come off. But it's good to have Branan back on wax, so to speak. Hopefully, we won't have to wait another six years for album number four.
Branan began a European tour as Mutt was released but will return to Memphis for a show at the Hi-Tone Café on July 20th.
— Chris Herrington