[20 August 2014]
Like all good country music, Cory Branan is hard, if not impossible, to define. That’s probably because you could argue he weighs equally into at least three other genres: he’s got a rollicking rock ‘n’ roll straightforwardness, a quick-witted punk-infused grittiness and the evocative songwriting prowess of a folk troubadour. On his fourth album, The No-Hit Wonder, Branan seems able to effortlessly bring it all together, creating a cohesive juggernaut of a record that’s every bit as sharp and clever as it it melodic, catchy, and downright fun to listen to.
Solid songwriters have a way of adapting to age, relationships, and everything else life throws at them. The recently married Branan—whose also has an infant son—writes a love letter to his wife on the opening track, “You Make Me”, that seems just as energetic and edgy as sweeping “The Prettiest Waitress in Memphis” off her feet on his 2006 album, 12 Songs. Beyond the lyrical craftsmanship, The No-Hit Wonder will make melodies stick in your head for days and have you listening to songs over and over just to catch missed lines on some of the record’s more fast-paced and lush verses that make him likably sound like a backwoods beat poet on speed.
The album before this one, MUTT, was his weakest. The 2012 record—which was released six years after his previous one at that point—seemed a little off, although “The Corner” and “Survivor Blues” are two of the strongest songs he’s ever written and his voice becoming slightly worn seemed to add character. (I asked Branan during an interview, right after MUTT was released, if/how writing songs had become different for him throughout a decade of recording and he answered, “I have one less vocal chord and three more fingers.”) But, on MUTT, the songwriting and instrumentation was erratic and, at times, such as in the self-deprecating, yet kind of brag-y “Bad Man”, maybe even a little forced. Although, since all four of his albums are well above average, I would still put MUTT in my top 25 of that year. The difference is, on The No-Hit Wonder , all of his strongest assets align.
He can stop you cold with a one liner. “Cory Branan is one of my favorite songwriters working today. He writes beautiful melodies, heartbreaking phrases, and very smart lyrics. This is the kind of record that makes you hit pause every so often to process what the crazy bastard just said. Brilliant stuff,” fellow Nashville songwriter Jason Isbell, who contributed guitar and backing vocals on two The No-Hit Wonder songs (more on this later), recently said. Those moments of curveball brilliance aren’t hard to come by, but here are three of my favorite lines off the record:
1) “I hear you got another boy / I hear he looks a lot like me / Did this one come with some kind of guarantee? / Well, I got me another girl and she looks like you at 23 / While she sleeps I trace the places where your tattoos used to be”—“The Only You”
2) “He said, ‘Do you want to know what true love feels like? / It’s the next best thing to death / It feels like an elbowed windpipe / Just before the next breath.’”—“The No-Hit Wonder”
3) “The stacks of old bills, the mounting mole hills, I dread / It’s hard work keeping the roof off of your head / Dream away through the day job, go straight home to pay my dues / Roll up my sleeves, have a go at me some meantime blues”—“Meantime Blues”
The record takes off with three strong songs—“You Make Me”, The No-Hit Wonder”, “The Only You”—but the best tracks fall into the bottom three of the album’s 11. “Daddy Was a Skywriter” is an neo-rockabilly shot of adrenaline, while “Taking The Highway Home” is a road-warriors anthem with a big chorus that will fit nicely into a long trip’s playlist. “Meantime Blues” is heavy-handed introspective picker that calls to mind late ‘90s/early 2000s Steve Earle folk. If it’s true that most people, more than anything, remember the first and last things written in a story, article, album or whatever, than he nailed the song order.
The No-Hit Wonder ‘s guest list is a who’s who of the alt-country underground: Austin Lucas and Caitlin Rose add an emotionally-charged touch to “All The Rivers in Colorado”, Craig Finn and Steve Selvidge of The Hold Steady contribute urgency to “The No-Hit Wonder” and Jason Isbell blends into “You Make Me” and “The Highway Home” like a veteran studio mercenary, scaling back and just doing what’s necessary to add more substance to the songs. (As good as his studio career is and will continue to be for a long time, I think eventually we could possibly associate the term superproducer with Isbell. He has a serious knack for it. In 2012, he produced American Aquarium’s Burn. Fllicker. Die., which was supposed to be there last record before calling it quits. It revitalized their career. Although that has as much to do—probably more—with BJ Barham being an incredibly talented, dramatically underrated writer.)
A couple of years ago, when I interviewed Detroit honky tonker Whitey Morgan—who, like Branan, is signed with Bloodshot Records—we were talking about the wealth of good, current country(ish) music that exists. During that conversation, I was fond of an analogy he made: “There’s a lot of stuff going on in a lot of different places. That’s the thing: you have to look for it. I always compare it to people complaining while walking out of Olive Garden in the middle of Manhattan, saying that there is no good Italian places in Manhattan anymore. You just got to look for it. It’s not going to be where the majority of the people are.” He’s right. Radio-ready pop country is going to be here for a while. There’s no use bitching about it. Just dig deeper and listen to Cory Branan.