"I felt sort of like Dirk Diggler," Cory Branan jokes about accepting the Phillips Award for Best Newcomer at this year's Premier Player Awards.
Branan's emergence on the local music front may not have been as swift and scene-changing as that Boogie Nights protagonist's rise through the film's '70s porn milieu, but it has been a very real occurrence nonetheless. Not that Branan himself thought the award was that big of a deal.
"My mom loved it," Branan says about the award. "It was cool, but I know what it is. Not that many people know me, but not that many people vote, and I happen to know enough people in NARAS. I got to play The Pyramid, but I still got the feeling that maybe 10 people in the crowd knew who I was. But I have other things that'll make me happy. My CD in a jukebox. That'll make me happy."
Well, if the city's jukebox operators have much of a clue, Branan may be on the verge of fulfilling at least that dream. This week Branan will celebrate the local release of his startlingly assured debut album, The Hell You Say -- the best record yet from the local label MADJACK.
Cory Branan is a 26-year-old singer-songwriter from Southaven who started playing on his own four or five years ago -- singing covers at the Daily Planet -- and didn't start writing original songs until a couple of years ago, around the time that he began to discover the songwriters that now serve as his prime influences.
"Not long after I first started putting my own songs together, someone gave me a John Prine record," Branan says. "It wasn't pretentious. It was pretty good ol' boy but still poetry -- and conversational. And then Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. I pretty much discovered them all in a few-months stretch."
Like those songwriters and others Branan speaks warmly of -- Randy Newman, Freedy Johnston -- Branan's songs are literary but colloquial, suffused with compassion, humor, and an intentional edge that rejects those elements that can give the term singer-songwriter a bad reputation -- the confessional solipsism, the sentimental poesy, the folkie puritanism.
The Hell You Say is a glorious showcase for Branan's inspired wordplay, with the troublesome girls who populate the album lavished with the most vivid imagery. The Hell You Say introduces us to women who "come around at midnight like a Sunday afternoon/with a purpose and a manner like a needle and a spoon." Who are "a stained-glass window on a back-door screen." Women with "eyes as black as a police boot with a $3.50 shine" who inspire memories that stick like shivs.
The verbal facility displayed on The Hell You Say is no surprise -- anyone who's seen Branan perform live lately knows his way with words -- but the musicality of the album is a bit of a shock. Produced by Branan and Pawtuckets guitarist Kevin Cubbins, The Hell You Say is remarkably as much a musical triumph as a verbal one, with Branan's own sharp guitar work leading the way.
The album was recorded half at Posey Hedges' Memphis Soundworks (the full-band tracks) and half at Jeff Powell's Humongous Studios (the mostly acoustic cuts) and has the semi-intentional side-effect of showcasing not only Branan but much of the city's roots-rock scene. The album features bountiful assistance from members of Lucero, the River Bluff Clan, and, most crucially, the Pawtuckets. Pawtuckets bassist Mark Stuart is a mainstay. The River Bluff Clan's Richard Ford punctuates "Pale Moon On Paper Town" with perfect steel guitar. Other guests make essential contributions: Eric Lewis gives "Troublesome Girl" a Western feel with lovely, whimsical Spanish guitar. Kim Richardson adds harmony vocals to "Crackerjack Heart," "Love Song 8," and "Closer."
The group-effort feel of the record is most prominent on the sinner's prayer "Wayward and Down," a sort of local roots-rock "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," where Branan swaps verses with the River Bluff Clan's Jimmy Davis, Lucero's Ben Nichols, and the Pawtuckets' Andy Grooms and enlists a group chorus that includes local singers Nancy Apple, Scott Sudbury, and Wayne LeeLoy.
But the real musical triumph of The Hell You Say is in the diverse, imaginative scenarios Cubbins and Branan concoct to put across Branan's songs.
The album opens with its sure shot -- the rousing, word-drunk "Miss Ferguson." A catchy blast of heartland rock with sneaky-smart lyrics ("The angle of her cheek is the math of persuasion"), "Miss Ferguson" is like a great John Mellencamp single as rewritten by John Prine. Organ and percussion come blaring out of the opening verse while Branan's own deft guitar carries the melody and the song piles up sly come-ons ("Ain't got no Purple Heart/no blue ribbons/blow out them candles and I'll show you where I've been"), dumb-fun sha-la-la-las, and antsy, overactive vocals.
"Crush" follows as an unintentional -- though perhaps subconscious -- update of Big Star's "Thirteen," a song Branan has covered live. "Crush" occurs three years later, after the hormones have really kicked in, resulting in a love letter from a "16-year-old Hitler with a troubled, lovesick mind." The song erupts in the middle with a wild, unexpected, and deeply funny "surprise party" of mandolin, banjo, kazoo, stray voices, and barking dogs.
The spare "Spoke Too Soon" is driven not so much by words as by a drum beat so unwavering it sounds looped and a guitar line inspired by indie bands like Yo la Tengo and Ida. The high point of the song is a drum break recorded in such a way that it sounds like it exists outside the world of the song, thus carrying a different emotional resonance. It sounds like an echo of the past -- a blast of wistfulness and regret that works brilliantly with the song's evocative and mysterious lyrics.
On "Green Street Lullaby (Dark Sad Song)," the false reassurance of "There's still time/you're still young/and there's always tomorrow" is greeted with a feedback-laden rebuke. The song is an album centerpiece, an ode to a Memphis where "Mosquitos hum like window units/but you gotta move if you want a breeze."
"In 'Dark Sad Song,' I was trying to be really specific about what it is about Memphis that's different," Branan says. "The thing about Memphis is that I could see myself relaxing and becoming a drunk and settling in. It's a real laid-back comfortable town. The laid-backness is one of the town's charms, but if you're not self-starting it's real easy to fall into a rut."
That song rhymes with "Pale Moon On Paper Town," which invokes the same dark, sad song by asking, "Am I the only one who hears that sound?" and contains the observation "It's never a good sign/when the whole state line is outlined in chalk."
But the heart of this honestly extraordinary debut is its delicate, prickly love songs: "Tame," which juxtaposes "40 days and 40 nights of hard-candy snow" with "The center of the girl I love is the 23rd Psalm"; the hushed "Crackerjack Heart," a signature tune at once elegant and playful; the harsh but beautiful "Love Song 8."
Branan will unleash this album on Sunday, May 20th, with an afternoon performance at Shangri-La Records and an official release party at the Hi-Tone Café. It's good enough to make him a star, at least on the semipopular level where this kind of music now operates. But Branan has no illusions about that.
"Take my hero, John Prine," Branan says. "If you ask 10 people who John Prine is, maybe two or three will know. And yet, if I could have just a tiny fraction of the career he's had I'd be very happy."
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.
record release party
The Hi-Tone Café
Sunday, May 20th