If Jay Brannan’s second full-length In Living Cover proves anything, it may be that the New York City-based singer-songwriter is currently a better interpreter of other people’s songs than a crafter of his own. Brannan’s a gentle-voiced folkie with a tendency to undercut his pleasant acoustic compositions with irreverent humor and matter-of-fact vulgarity. He follows up his 2008 debut, Goddamned, an awkward attempt to work out a genuine voice behind his mixture of cutesy novelty and mawkish politics, with In Living Cover. On it, Brannan wisely scales back, in essence, to a low-pressure coffeehouse setting where he is free to test out his own material amidst a selection of his well-worn favorites. Bookended by two Brannan originals, the material is mostly well chosen and occasionally surprising. Even with nods to folk icons like Bob Dylan (“Blowin’ In the Wind”) and Joni Mitchell (“All I Want”), his sweet, reverent take on Jann Arden’s poignant “Good Mother” surprises, considering Arden’s persistent obscurity outside of her native Canada. Even more impressive is his ability to lay bare the stark drama of the Verve Pipe’s decade-old hit “The Freshmen”, a fine song rendered dull in its overplayed radio version by generic mid-90s Modern Rock production, or his absolutely lovely recasting of Ani DiFranco’s “Both Hands” in multi-tracked a cappella harmonies.
But even in a stripped-down setting, Brannan gets overmatched by the bombast inherent in the Cranberries’ “Zombie”, an unfortunate miscalculation for how it swaps the album’s previously genial tone for heavy-handedness. Following “Zombie” is the bleak original “Drowning”, a ponderous bit of angsty musings that sound like they might have been the result of Brannan dusting off a journal from his teenage years (all the more disappointing considering that the other self-penned song here, album-opener “Beautifully”, is a warmly compassionate and spryly melodic bit of folk-pop that stands as his finest and most mature original to date). Given what a satisfying collection In Living Cover manages to be for the most part, it’s a shame that he chose to end on a couple of bum notes.