If indie rock were high school, and Kimya Dawson was the latest popular girl on campus, Jay Brannan would be her gay best friend. Like Dawson, Brannan gained recognition thanks to a celebrated soundtrack appearance, in his case the quirkily charming “Soda Shop” from John Cameron Mitchell’s notorious 2006 film Shortbus, which Brannan also acted and performed the song in (not to mention his participation in the most hilariously bizarre three-way sex scene in cinematic history). True, Brannan didn’t manage to take the Shortbus CD to the top of the Billboard charts, but the film did help turn him into a minor internet celebrity, where his homemade YouTube music videos (consisting of Brannan performing his acoustic ditties largely sans clothing; the man knows his audience) garnered him further attention.
And again just like Dawson, Brannan’s songs oscillate easily between endearing and annoying, infused with a persistent cuteness that is best served in small doses. If there is one major difference between the two, though, it lies in their professionalism; while Dawson has built her artistic persona around a deliberate amateurishness that retains a solid thematic continuity with the skewed-nursery-rhyme quality of her music, Brannan’s full-length debut Goddamned is an unexpectedly slick, professional-sounding affair. With his sweetly plainspoken vocals and an impressively deft sense of melodic phrasing on tracks like “Can’t Have It All”, “American Idol”, and “Home”, Brannan is backed by consistently lush folk-pop arrangements that are always pleasantly listenable but eventually serve to underscore the thinness of much of his material.
With his lyrics largely (the title track, an embarrassingly awkward Peace in the Middle East plea, is best left unchecked before you import this album to your library) centered around the perils of being a struggling young gay artist in Big Apple, Brannan does manage strike an occasional emotional chord—“Housewife” finds the singer longing for a simpler life in an astoundingly unironic spin on Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone”—but far too many of his songs center solely around easy punch lines and lyrical barbs that render them all too quickly disposable once you’ve heard the joke through once. Imagine Aimee Mann or Liz Phair penning knock-knock jokes and that’s sort of the effect that listening to Brannan’s music has. Not at all untalented, and with likeability to spare, Brannan’s music nevertheless needs to grow up a bit before he can truly produce a worthwhile body of work.