Best of 2012: A bad man would do you good
When last we left off Cory Branan and I were both discovering his new potential. For a while it didn’t go much beyond that; I picked up a split 7″ he issued with perennial favourite Austin Lucas on the flip-side but his track “The Wreck Of Sultana” isn’t exactly the kind of song you put on repeat. It’s still an arresting number, a nearly six-minute story-song about the worst nautical disaster in U.S. history (call it his version of “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”) that serves mostly as a history lesson for the listener and practice for Branan’s more emotive vocal inflections.
Fast-forward a few years to this spring when Branan announced that his new full-length album, literally six years in the making, would be getting a release on Chicago’s “insurgent country” label Bloodshot Records (which is on an incredible hot streak the last year or two, signing Justin Townes Earle, the magnetic Scott H. Biram, Branan, and [one of my absolute favourite bands] Murder By Death). Provocative cover art was attached and it was just a matter of waiting until it hit the streets.
Brother, it was worth the wait.
Mutt begins with a familiar tune, “The Corner,” the song which first captured my attention on the above-linked Snodgrass split LP. Branan has slowed his picking down just a bit and added some flourishes of colour here and there, but the song remains essentially the same: a Trojan Horse of emotion lurking behind the amiable outer wall of the song’s remarkable melody and bright finger-picking. It’s also one of the least-representative songs of the album as a whole.
The back-to-back pairing of “Survivor Blues” and “Bad Man” are really the key tracks here, songs that Branan gives himself up to fully and allows the entirety of his musical proclivities to take up room in their arrangements. While Branan has ties to the punk community his music has never really reflected that linkage, at least not as much as it does on the former track. The drums are practically Preekness-level fast compared to some of his more meandering numbers, with rapid-fire fills adding texture to some of the musical breaks (although the percussion is far back enough in the mix throughout the album that it kind of sounds like the drums were mic’d from a few feet away). Electric guitar and insistent piano give the song an edge as well, but the real focal point here is Branan’s malleable singing. He has half-jokingly referred to his musical style as “redneck hollering” in the past but it’s actually mostly true here; he lets his raspy side fence with his cleaner-singing side throughout the song, his gruffer textures eventually coming out on top of the corps-à-corps. It culminates in one of the oddest screams I’ve ever heard in a musical context, an almost disembodied-sounding throat-shredder that serves as the climax of the song. “Bad Man” takes the preceding musical elements even further, putting a bouncy piano riff and saxophone to the forefront and careening them off syncopated drums. I don’t want to say it’s reminiscent of Huey Lewis and The News because it’s not, but maybe it also sort of is? But in a good way, you know? But also with some shades of southern rock and country mixed in there as well. Like, Branan-style.
Lyrically that pair of songs also shows the deftness in Branan’s turns of phrase. “Survivor Blues” is the kind of story-song he’s been chasing his whole career, the case of two outlaws finding their own rough-and-tumble kinship in a chance encounter. In just a few establishing lines Branan gives them both a road-weary, hardened voice to match the fictional back-stories he only hints it with a few well-placed lines (”She put out a match with a tear” for example, or “She struggled to read his knuckle tattoos beneath the ring and the scar”). On the topic of his stolen car he tells her, “It’s parked out back and pointed out of state. It’s a recent acquisition; should probably ditch the plates. It won’t get me far enough to ever lose track, but yeah, it’s plenty car enough for never coming back.” In the chorus he posits, “They say it makes you stronger but first you gotta survive,” perhaps hinting as much with is own brief flirtations of success as a musician (he was featured in a Rolling Stone spread on the release of his first album but even that didn’t move enough units to establish him) as with his characters’ history of hard knocks. He mines similar territory in “Bad Man” just moments later, speaking out on behalf of all musicians who have ever been looked down on for what they do: “I’m a bad man baby, but I think a bad man could do you good.” Towards the end of the song he flips the notion on its head, the bad man’s paramour insisting, “My baby makes a better bad man than you do good.”
Branan’s softer side begins to emerge at this point, showing the duality of the singers like Tom Waits that he clearly admires so thoroughly. “There There, Little Heartbreaker” is written in the style of a vintage Closing Time Waits lullaby, all twinkling harp and consoling strings, visceral lyrics about blood in the wrists and flesh and stones and rainfall on black windows, Branan’s voice — like Waits — attempting a gentle croon but falling prey to his own occasional caustic throat rumblings. “There there, little heartbreak. Just remember, no windows no doors,” he concludes in the last section, “and no mirrors, no mirrors, no mirrors, mirrors, no mirrors no more. And whatever you do don’t do it tonight; the heart is a hollow cocoon. There there, little heartbreaker; it’ll be all over soon.” “The Snowman” also cribs from Tin Pan Alley soundscapes with it’s almost trash-can sounding percussion, it’s alternatively mellifluous and snake charmer-esque woodwinds backing up the hint of malice and danger in Branan’s vocals. “Jericho” cribs a dirtily-distorted and reverberated electric guitar and pairs it with equally distorted horns that reflect a more modern version of the Waits ethos combined with some of the Fat Possum label’s experimental updates on blues.
Even when he hews closer to more familiar singer-songwriter tropes Branan still stands out. “Yesterday (Circa Summer 80 Somethin’)” not only apes John Cougar Mellencamp’s acoustic-led down-home folk-rock jams, it improves on them. Branan has nothing to hide; he even name-checks Mellencamp in the first verse of the song just to lay it all on the table. The chorus is soaring, its melody much more timeless than the era the song’s title suggests. “Hold Me Down” comes later, it’s string-drenched arrangement coming across like John Mayer if John Mayer didn’t suck all of the balls ever. “Lily” is a singer-songwriter number in the vein of Tim Hardin or underrated English troubadour Tom McRae, with vaguely menacing and washed-out strings and keys creating an unsteady undercurrent that contrasts starkly with the glockenspiel and electric guitar parts.
The album closes with a redux of “Survivor Blues” that is a lot less frenetic and much more introspective-sounding. Brushed drums replace the propulsive snare work of the earlier version and acoustic guitar takes up the melodic reins as Branan’s voice falls somewhere between a whisper and a soft growl. The starkly different arrangement is far from essential, simply working to reinforce the notion that Branan works from a palette as wide as his imagination will allow him.
That’s why Mutt is such an appropriate name for this record. On it’s surface it may feel inconsistent from one song to another but it isn’t because Branan is indecisive or can’t figure out what kind of songwriter he wants to be. He wants to be every songwriter! He’s a musical embodiment of the puppy the couple down the street just got: it’s hard to figure out exactly what you’re seeing at first but it’s because there are so many genetic/musical markers working within a frame, all fighting to present themselves. The fact that Branan has finally been able to put together an album that not only sees his myriad musical proclivities coalescing into a cohesive whole but has also managed to make every song melodically and texturally infectious shows that he’s working at the top of his game right now. Mutt is without a doubt one of the most engaging records you’re going to hear this year.
Now he just needs to work on not taking six years in between full-lengths. Hopefully a healthy relationship with Bloodshot can foster an increased pace in his productivity.