Posted by: Necci – May 24, 2012
Here’s a little weird trivia for you. The first article that I ever wrote for RVA Magazine was an interview feature with singer-songwriter Cory Branan. From the first time I saw him perform, I was sold on the incredible prowess he exuded. His songs were quirky and honest, and his furious guitar playing just seemed undeniably awesome to me. There was a charm to getting to see him live and it was always a great blessing to run into him from time to time on his visits through Richmond. Since starting from the floor of 929 West Grace Street and the dusky, limelight room of Empire, Branan has seen a bit of success finally come his way. He has been featured on Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour while also playing opening act on a recent Dashboard Confessional outing. To say this was long overdue is an understatement. Now, his victory lap is a full-length album entitled Mutt.
The one overarching criticism of Branan’s recorded output was that it had trouble accurately depicting his live performances. The songs were given rich production as well as an impressive roster of studio players, but it just wasn’t what people were expecting when they would take the records home. People wanted them to be more of an artifact capturing what they'd just witnessed. Mutt doesn’t stray too far from this more elaborate production method, but it is Branan's most successful attempt at making a quality studio record that still feels like the performer you just caught live.
The record opens with “The Corner,” which highlights Branan's incredible wit. His musings about letting ashtrays finish his cigarettes and daydreaming about where he’s headed are a proper introduction for the uninitiated. Branan has commented that “The Corner” is an observational tune about where he’s at in life, and where he wants to be as a musician. It’s a fairly apropos examination of these thoughts, and as an opener for his third record, it works wonders. This song also presents Branan's particular style of finger-picking, which many are drawn to. It’s not so ridiculous that it deserves close examination, but he just plays the hell out of his guitar. You almost wonder how it is that he doesn’t tear the strings right off the neck.
Considering that several of the songs featured on Mutt have been circulating in his live sets for many years now, I was a bit worried that the presence of familiar tunes would be a downside. Thankfully, the songs are performed with a finesse that makes them feel like you're hearing them for the first time. “Bad Man” comes across like a lost Springsteen track, as does one of my personal favorites “Jericho,” which hones in on a delightful horn crescendo that helps lift the song’s loose arrangement to great heights. It’s also fitting to have two interpretations of the track “Survivor Blues” included. When I first heard the track in a live demo form, with Branan accompanied by Jon Snodgrass of Drag The River, it was full of raucous and rampant energy. The scream and shout approach to the vocals felt like a perfect means for Branan to figure out the best way to channel the intensity of his live sets into his songwriting. On Mutt, having a full, electrified version of the tune along with a quieter acoustic approach helps to illustrate the two sides of Branan found in his different tones of composition.
In addition to the aforementioned familiar tunes, there were a few more inclusions on Mutt's track listing that I was surprised and pleased to discover. “Lily” is a remarkable song that includes many of Branan’s best lines. It benefits from the studio production, but still retains a lot of its value due to a more minimalist approach. “The Freefall” was a long-looming song that I was never certain would see the light of day. It’s good to see that despite Branan's prolific nature, no songs end up being forgotten. The one song that really caught me off guard with its presence on Mutt was “Darken My Door,” which has been a favorite of mine for quite a while. Up to this point, the only version I could find was ripped from a random podcast that Branan appeared on, something like five years ago. It never really made a dent in live sets, and it just seemed like a random throwaway for him. For it to end up on this long-awaited release is awesome, and to hear it with a wonderful instrumental accompaniment is just phenomenal.
There are a few bizarre choices on the record. It isn’t so much that certain songs suffer from being not as good as the rest of Mutt; it has more to do with them being of such a varied style and technique that they step out of the vibe of the record. “The Snow Man” is the obvious example that comes to mind. When people describe Branan, Springsteen and Tom Petty are comparisons that come immediately to mind. “The Snow Man” helps to expand on this comparison by showcasing more of the Warren Zevon and Tom Waits sensibilities that he will hone in on from time to time. Unfortunately, it also feels out of place in the context of this album.
All in all, Mutt is the strongest showing of Branan’s craft thus far. After many years of endless tours and promises of multiple new releases, it’s good to see a label like Bloodshot Records find the means to put out a new full-length by one of my personal favorites. The release of Mutt may also prove to be just the start of new recordings on their way from Branan. Considering there are easily dozens of songs that he has written that have yet to see a proper release, it should prove to be an exciting time to be a Cory Branan fan.
By Shannon Cleary