The irony of an alt-country singer naming his fourth record The No-Hit Wonder only to receive the most media coverage he’s had since his debut is kind of delicious, but even though it’s also his best album I feel confident in predicting that Cory Branan will be no closer to becoming a superstar than he is today.
Oh, don’t get me wrong — I am an absolute devotee of Branan’s. He can do no wrong, as far as I’m concerned; his last record Mutt was nothing short of a revelation after he spent six years between albums (aside from a literally perfect split LP with SSA-favourite Jon Snodgrass). I loved it so much I called it one of my favourite records of 2012. The No-Hit Wonder will be at the top this year as well, I promise you that.
Still, the sarcastic and sassy title, no matter how tongue-in-cheek, will hold true. This album is Branan’s most consistent in terms of genre; where his early records swung between acoustic torch songs and fuzzed-out rock songs and Mutt went every which-way from Tom Waits-inspired Tin Pan Alley songcraft to John Cougar Mellencamp-style pop rock, Branan stays fairly close to the time-honoured traditions of pure country music on this record. But even that dedication won’t propel him onto the pop charts: his comfort zone is miles away from what succeeds in country music these days.
Consider the songs that hit me the hardest on my first listen: “Sour Mash,” “The Only You,” and “All The Rivers In Colorado.” They’d all fit well in the deep pockets of country greats like Waylon Jennings and George Jones, but that sort of traditionalism sounds nothing like what goes on country music radio these days. Branan is much more in line with Canadians like Corb Lund and Daniel Romano (although the latter has draped himself in so much pastiche it’s sometimes hard to tell he’s under the 10-gallon hats and rhinestones).
The first is a fantastic new whisky anthem, a paean to the brownest of the brown liquors (another thing I absolutely love) that is as timeless as the Tennessee whisky Branan sings about (he’s a Nashville stalwart, after all). It’s propelled by a lightning-quick, fantastically-picked electric guitar line reminiscent of Joe Memphis’ work on some Ricky Nelson tunes (or, for that matter, his theme for Bonanza!), a taught and muscular backbone for a sultry and sassy composition. This is as close as Branan gets to the flashes of vocal menace or malice he showed on Mutt, but the growlier bits are really just a subtle counterpoint to the wry wink of the chorus, in which he demands the entire bar be bought a shot upon his demise.
“All The Rivers In Colorado” is my personal favourite on the record. I could fully see it sitting in George Jones’ catalogue, although it has some musical familiarity to tracks like Merle Haggard’s “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” or Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive.” A nice twist on the classic bitter-sweet love song, Branan sounds downright ebullient while pledging that all of the titular streams could drive away the thought of his former loved ones. “Not that I’m trying,” he insists, “Just a thought, though it might be nice to keep from crying like all the rivers in Colorado.” The yo-yo melody and the spindly steel guitar help it hew dangerously close to pop country territory.
Ah, but there’s the rub. Branan is considered a songwriter’s songwriter, and tracks like this are indicative of that stature. Whether it’s nearly every line in the first verse ending with the word river or the incredibly circular structure of the chorus, he just throws in all these off-beat quirks and tics that break the songs from the stereotypical and expected tropes of the genre. It’s kind of amazing to have these kinds of jags hit your ear when you’re expecting them to go a certain way.
Then there’s “The Only You.” A very catchy number, this one seems to have caught the ear of nearly every reviewer I’ve seen take this album on. I think Branan’s been equally praised and derided for some too-cute lines: “I heard you’ve got another boy/I hear he looks a lot like me…Well, I got me another girl/she looks like you at 23/and while she sleeps I trace the places where your tattoos used to be.” But the real heart of the song is the intensity of Branan’s melancholic yearning in the chorus. “When I get lonely? Sure, she’ll do. But you’re the only you,” he pines, somehow managing to encapsulate in his singing the painful distance of lost love, but even more powerful is the momentary (albeit ultimately fleeting) satisfaction of finding someone to take their place for now.
And for my money, that melancholy joy what really makes this album. Branan himself is in an abnormally happy place in his life, having a wife and two young children that make him actually want to be at home instead of touring each year away. While he retains his dour sensibilities on the Tom Waits-biting “All I Got And Gone” and the admittedly-playful “C’mon Shadow,” he also celebrates home and family: “Daddy Was A Skywriter” is an honest and loving assessment of his familial roots (“Papa shaped this place with grease and grace, mama loved me and I hope it shows”), “You Make Me” is a startlingly-smitten opening track, and “Missing You Fierce” and “The Highway Home” show where his beacon is fixed these days.
As Branan says in the title track, perhaps both inanely and poignantly (if that’s possible), “It is what it is.” His sardonic sense of humour as he admits his chosen career hasn’t worked out yet shows that regardless of how his musical aspirations have turned out, he’s starting to realize how little industry success really matters in the grand scheme. That means his songwriting still has the kind of freedom to wander and goof around that you just can’t find in corporate country music. And for a quirky writer like Branan, that makes all the difference.