Memphis born, Mississippi raised and currently Austin-based, singer-songwriter Cory Branan has come a long way from the Lucero shout-out in their track “Tears Don’t Matter Much” that brought him on many a listener’s radar. Even back in 2003, Branan was no stranger to playing every gig he could get, rambling far and wide, opening for bands when he could and playing by himself when he couldn’t. Two criminally under-noticed records dropped on small Southern indies in his wake of that touring, (2002’s The Hell You Say and 2006’s 12 Songs) creating a buzz for our hero equal to the ones he had been known to tie on and the latter part of 2006 had Cory mentioning an imminent new record, but save for a split with Jon Snodgrass that dropped in 2009, recorded output has been sadly few and far between. I could have sworn that Cory had mentioned that Chuck Prophet was on board to produce the project, but as of last year word was that Cory had produced the recording himself in San Francisco and was shopping it to prospective suitors. The early part of this year brought the news that Bloodshot Records had prevailed and would be releasing the record and that it was to be called Mutt.
The bedrock of Mutt was recorded in San Francisco by the estimable Tim Mooney of American Music Club renown, with vocals recorded later in Memphis. The combination of Bay Area fog and Memphis swelter is an intoxicating combination. Tracks like “Lily” definitely have the darkly beautiful patina of AMC, albeit with less of the histrionic vocal heights. Tom Waits and John Prine are other obvious vocal touchstones, but don’t think Branan is just another hairy face rehashing the songwriting greats of yesteryear; his songwriting is up there with the best of the new breed of today ala Snodgrass, Finn and Nichols. Most of the fourteen songs that comprise Mutt will be familiar to those that have been lucky enough to seen Branan live in recent years. The standout “Survivor Blues” appears twice, initially in rocked-up Thin Lizzy mode and again in stripped-down “After Hours” form to close the record. The song epitomizes the strength of the Branan canon, able to translate solo or with a rocking band behind him its story of a couple Branan describes like the one in “Born To Run”, but with significant pasts and little sense that running is going to be of any help.
Branan deals largely in two types of songs: story songs and love songs; whether they concern girls he has fallen in love with or girls he is falling in love with currently. Neither eventuality is to be missed, and Mutt offers a bumper crop of both varieties. Things gets underway on a familiar note with a Spartan reprise of “The Corner” from the Snodgrass split, with Jon returning for backing vocals. All things rocking begin in earnest with the band version of “Survivor Blues” before “Badman” swaggers its way in with a three drink buzz and has its way with all the ladies within earshot. Ladies named and nameless get love for the duration on Mutt, whether it be the three chord girls of “The Freefall” or “Jericho” with its images of ladies reflected in napkin dispensers.
Branan and Mooney are a formidable combination, wringing every bit of possibility from each song on Mutt without ever gilding the lily. Whether it be the twinkling strings and Tom Waits-isms “There There Little Heartbreaker” brings to the table or the clanging percussion and gypsy strains of “Snowman”, Muttcaptures the best of live Branan in fully realized form. Things wind down nicely with the California meets Kristofferson vibe of “Hold Me Down” and seeming lost AMC Everclear track “Lily” before the reprise of “Survivor Blues” draws things to a close. And your hand hits play again, if you have any sense in your head. Mutt is undoubtedly the best Branan release to date, a shiny new jewel in the Bloodshot Records crown that will no doubt clutter the upper reaches of many a Best Of 2012 list.