Cory Branan's Mutt


From the first notes of "The Corner" on his new record, Mutt, one is drawn into a contagious world of revery, booze, and fun, filtered through Cory Branan's personal vision that makes even his saddest songs joyful. Branan has been road testing many of these songs for years. His last album, 12 Songs, came out in 2006 and a split with Jon Snodgrass appeared in 2009, but most of these songs have been in his live set for years, and they are readily available on various bootlegs, including an excellent showing with Ben Nichols of Lucero. These are the songs that make Mutt essential for any music collection in 2012, yet it will be interesting to see how he transforms his new songs in a live setting.

On first listen, Mutt doesn't seem as exuberant as Branan's live show. He seems a tad subdued and his odd sense of humor that bubbles up during song breaks is all but missing. The songs are tighter here and his sense of humor comes through loud and clear in the lyrics. "Corner" is a slow-burning acoustic wanderer song, in which Branan finds himself engaged in some soul searching as he wanders through town. He is left unable to transcend the dregs of a broken relationship. "Survivor Blues" is a faster and seems to pay homage to John Cougar Mellencamp with punk rock breaks and tight drumming.Yet again Branan tells the story of a wandering love affair as the participants attempt to survive. On "Badman," Branan's humor shines through loud and clear. Is it just another love song or something more? The narrator identifies himself as a bad man who would do her good, but he trips us up with lines like "we were never cool / it'll be all over the entire middle school." He slows it down yet again on the country-tinged "Darken My Door," which sounds much fuller than in his spare acoustic versions . Female backup vocals add a tinge of harmony and steel guitar accents make this song one of the best in his catalog. Branan explores the depth of his range, recalling Ryan Adams, or Jason Isbell at his most introspective, but Branan's deeper, richer voice gives the track more resonance than either.

"There There Little Heartbreaker" is a departure that doesn't fully work. Here Branan channels Steve Earle's  softer side with piano and heavier orchestration. As a ballad it works to expand the range of the album, yet seems half-finished. The same can be said of "Snowman" which aims for a Tom Waitsian vibe, but comes up sounding more like Gogol Bordello. Branan attempts torch singing and is very convincing, but the lyrics fall flat. I hope he can expand on this sound on a later record though as I think it could be better realized. On "Yesterday," he crafts a John Mellencamp vibe, even name checking the man. A live favorite for years, this number crackles with an energy not felt in "There There Little Heartbreaker or "Snowman."He probably should have tested them on the road before putting them on the album. Branan is in fine form on this track, and his lyrical poetry speaks for itself, as all his bluster is undermined by his playground antics: "It was undeniably summer / I was certifiably cool / With my acid-washed jacket /And my stone-washed jeans /I rose out of the kiddie pool." "Karen's Song" returns to the wanderer theme that is prevalent in many of Branan's songs."The Freefall" and "Jericho" each track other couples that are not so much destined to fail but destined to be human. Branan's mastery of storytelling details makes each of his songs work as stories that offer something new upon each listen. Mutt comes full circle on the slower final version of  "Survivor Blues (The After Hour Version)." The song encapsulates Branan's songwriting skill in that all of his songs can work in the acoustic or full band setting, but it also adds new dimensions to his storytelling.The full lives of his characters can be portrayed in numerous ways, and this slower tender version explores the multiplicities of life. Branan is an expert at such character studies, but here he shows a nuance that is often undermined by his exuberance.

Branan sings about life with a clear songwriter's eye that makes him stand apart from the current breed of singer-songwriters. It would be easy to name drop more songwriters that he admires or looks to for inspiration, but Branan clearly stands alone. He travels the same weary American road as those who have come before. But his humor, enthusiasm, and penchant for attempting new things, without striving too far from what works, makes Mutt an achievement of the highest caliber. While he doesn't capture the energy of his live shows, he creates a fuller sounding record that, despite some missteps, shows he is one of the best singer-songwriters around today.

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