Issue #13: 12 Songs by Cory Branan
April 25, 2016
Released On March 21, 2006
Released By Madjack Records
There is a delicate framework at play with the songwriting of Cory Branan. Treading the line between sentimental and charming wit, he is guilty of leaving audiences transfixed by the stories he churns. The characters are never portrayed as villainous or heroic. They are imperfect and it’s the humanity of it all that makes Branan one of my favorite songwriters.
My first introduction to him was through a live performance at Nanci Raygun in 2005. Performing alongside his friends in Lucero, Branan broke the hearts of everyone in attendance. Performing songs from his debut The Hell You Say and his yet-to-be released follow-up 12 Songs, his unrelenting presence on guitar and fluidity behind the mic would leave me feeling inspired. It had an enormous impact in how I approached my own attempts at being a singer-songwriter and pretty much every creative endeavor I would task myself with for years to come.
As a recorded artist, there are several that criticize the differences between his studio efforts and live performances. During a typical set, his vigorous playing leads most people to wonder how he hasn’t broken nearly every string on his guitar. He is just as quick to crowd the microphone as he is to completely abandon it in lieu of projecting his voice as loud as he possibly can. There is a spontaneity to his live shows that can be difficult to capture on a record. In many ways, it seems like a fool’s errand to expect that there should be any desire to do that for a recording.
On 12 Songs, he wanted a collection of his material that didn’t necessarily feel like a cohesive album. It’s a big reason why I decided to choose this record for the variety of performances found. The big band sound of “Muhammad Ali” is an opportunity that could only happen in the studio. Also, a song that was rumored to bring most audiences of children into full-on dance assault mode. The full-on rock of “She’s My Rock-n-Roll” and “The Prettiest Waitress In Memphis” are welcome moments of unapologetic bliss. “A Girl Named GO” is one of his catchiest songs to date and presents a tale of making a run for it and the reckless abandon that comes along when drugs and alcohol are thrown into the mix. “Easy” is a gentle ballad that might get lost in the dark halls of barrooms, but can find a place as a lullaby that shows the varied dynamic of Branan’s writing. These are the instances where you can begin to understand why the studio version of Branan needs to exist in a different realm than the live version.
Another reason I picked 12 Songs was because it features one of my favorites by Branan. When introducing friends to Branan for the first time, I show them “Tall Green Grass,” a tale of romantic folly and the hypnotizing effects of unparalleled adoration. The guitar playing is exquisite and feels elevating. It matches the mood of the song in such a way that it sets the visionary qualities of Branan even further above many of his creative peers.
Along with “Tall Green Grass,” one of my favorite things about Branan is his wordplay. On “Hell-bent And Heart-first,” he effortlessly maneuvers around the experience of meeting someone for the first time. While throwing in mild reference to dumb small talk subjects like the pilot episode of Miami Vice and tempering the song with a tempo that can match the anxiety of falling in love for the first time, Branan achieves so much. And the line “lazy drunken moon / passed out in the branches / a fit of stars in my favorite piece of sky” is still easily one of my favorites. Although, the sheer fact that he rhymes “secretly enamoured” with “obviously hammered” on “Love Song #11 (Secretly Enamoured)” is worth celebrating as well.
In what ended up being a long wait, Branan finally released a follow-up to 12 Songs in 2012. The results were just as succinct as past efforts and proving once again that he is still one of the strongest American songwriters currently working. 12 Songs holds that special moment for me when I first became entranced with the special qualities of Branan and how he would pen some of my favorite lines to ever be sung. And if anything, I enjoy the experience of knowing that my first interview to ever be published by RVA Magazine was with Branan and set a lot of things in motion as far as my path towards music journalism. It goes without saying that being introduced to Branan’s music had a pretty monumental impact on me artistically and personally.
Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
You say you don’t like country, huh? Well then — how about this?
The label says 12 Songs. What we find is scruffy little box of 45s, whiskey and grease soaked from tumbling around the resting place of Elvis and Jeff Buckley. Looking for love. Looking for trouble. Both of these enterprises wonderfully epitomized in the warmly driven, finger-picked guitar on “Tall Green Grass.” The rambling hits a pop-high with touches of quirky Clem Snide and chuggy Guided By Voices on “The Prettiest Waitress In Memphis.” This is also the shining example of Branan’s knack for turning phrase. There’s beautiful lo-fi whimsy on “Love Song #7” with synthesizer arpeggios that evince the breadth of his vision versus what could be shrugged off as worn Americana stylings. I love the flanger drum flirt on “Love Song #11 (Secretly Enamoured),” the miniature guitar-freakout on “The Last Man On Earth.” The theme of heartache and longing pervade this collection for sure, although there seems to be a song for every mood — whereas many times assemblage albums can fall flat with filler, 12 Songs is an appeasingly balanced survey of the late-night wanderings of a southern troubadour. I’m inclined to think the title is a nod to Paul Westerberg’s own collection, 14 Songs, as the more raw moments share some of his anthemic brashness as well as vulnerability. So if you’re looking for winsome tales of tenderness and trial, throw some coins in the 12 Songs juke, pull up a stool at the bar and ask for bourbon.
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
I’ve heard other work by Cory Branan before, and while I could certainly respect the musicianship and songwriting talent, the other albums I’d heard by him failed to get under my skin. Therefore I expected to pen a dispassionate note about technical quality, and leave it at that. However, this record has definitely hit me at a deeper place than I ever expected. I think I “get” Cory Branan now, where I didn’t before. It certainly helped that this record by an artist who I think of as being on the more polished side of the alt-country genre starts with a flat-out rock n’ roll song. “A Girl Named GO” has 60s garage-style Farfisa driving its melody and some rockabilly-style chunka-chunk palm-mute guitar riffs on the verses. It’d be a ton of fun to do the twist to on a Saturday night at the sort of club that hasn’t existed for 40 years (I would much rather go to one of those than a lot of the ones we have today, which makes me sound a million years old). From there, we get the horn-infused rock n’ soul of “Muhammad Ali,” the gritty minimalism of “Tall Green Grass,” and a driving tune about “The Prettiest Waitress In Memphis.” Even the first ballad that appears on the album, “Love Song #11 (Secretly Enamoured),” sounds way more like a mid-period Wilco ballad than anything properly characterized as “alt-country.” And I love some alt-country artists, but as a form it can be played out, so what I’ve found on 12 Songs is something I appreciate way more. Even the lengthy late-album honky tonk tune, “All These Little Cowboys,” adds a welcome Drive-By Truckers-ish flavor — welcome partly, I’m sure, because it wasn’t preceded by 9 more songs of the same kind of thing. This one is nice; I’m gonna keep it around for a while.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
I don’t really have much to say this week. For most of the week, I didn’t even dream of playing anything other than the Purple One, and then Bey decided to fuck up everyone’s Sunday. But I have a few stray thoughts. The first is that within the first few songs of this project, Corey Branan manages to remind me of both the Ramones and Alan Jackson, which is a sentence I shouldn’t physically be able to type. There are albums that have strong openers and then there are albums with songs like “A Girl Named GO,” a total WTF smack to the senses that shakes you out of whatever you’re doing and forces you to pay attention to the crazy genre mashing that’s going on. Branan is musically daring here, but he’s also lyrically on fire. These songs are burning with wit and charm. Nowhere is this more evident than on “The Prettiest Waitress In Memphis.” This song spoke to me on a spiritual level. Vivid and raucous and funny as hell, this one is gonna get some serous rotation on my next westbound road trip. As for the rest of the album, I’m looking forward a less hectic week soon, where I can give it the repeat spins that I’m confident it deserves.
Josh Buck (@altq42)
Devout Pop Music Purist
A mastery of dynamics goes a long way. Take just one of Cory Branan’s 12 Songs: “The Last Man On Earth.” Loud and quiet sections alternate, with distortion reigning for a time and contemplative explanation taking over while the next outburst awaits. The feedback-forward solo not long after the three minute mark offers such a jolt — like a levee has broken and the song’s lost control. But here’s the great irony: Dynamics are all about control. Branan has a great knack for harnessing the energy of a song — knowing when to dip into the low register, with its raspy notes and lack of volume, and when to take things up a notch — and you can even hear it in the lyrics. I love the couplet: “It’s the very last bottle on Earth / Might as well get my money’s worth.” The measured setup and the unrestrained payoff are so great — order and chaos placed side-by-side, highlighting the power each force holds. Zoom out to include the next song, “Sweet Janine,” and you get even more contrast. “Janine” represents a genuine valley amid the album’s rocky terrain. A chance to pause and think and feel. A complementary part of this really thoughtful whole that Branan has assembled. Powerful, no matter how loud or soft you listen.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
We’re going to bet this smile comes after dropping the endearing “I can’t even tell you where the fuck we are” line in “Tall Green Grass.”
One of my favorite features of Jessica Hopper’s late, great zine Hit It Or Quit It was the slang section, a glossary of terms that (I’m guessing) she and her friends made up and used — for example, “cape” is any unnecessary article of clothing. My friend Mallory coined the phrase “crazy picture disease,” which refers to someone who looks nearly unrecognizable in every photo. Cory Branan’s 12 Songs has “crazy music disease,” where almost every song sounds like a different artist. “”A Girl Named GO?” Anodyne-era Uncle Tupelo. “The Prettiest Waitress In Memphis” is a punk-country ode to a lovely lady who serves him pecan pie when he goes through town. The blue-eyed soul of “Muhammad Ali” could almost be a Charlie Puth song (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Many other tunes are straight singer-songwriter, sometimes with a more country slant that remind me of Barna Howard, and others like “Love Song #11 (Secretly Enamoured)” are more moody and atmospheric. My favorite track is the closer, “She’s My Rock-n-Roll,” which combines a 60s psych organ with a more modern rock feel. The diversity (a nicer way to say crazy music disease) found in 12 Songs will bring me back to it time and again, depending on my frame of mind and/or craving for pie.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
So here we are after a week of listening to Cory Branan’s second record 12 Songs and I still don’t really know what to make of it. Do I like it? Yes, without a doubt. But I can’t quite put my finger on why which is not the most useful thing when conveying thoughts on an album. My initial thoughts when seeing the name Cory Branan was that I was in for some good old country music. Growing up listening to Garth Brooks blare out over my parents CD players meant this wasn’t as terrifying a prospect as it should be for a middle-class Englishman, but this is most certainly not country as I know it. The record is an eclectic bundle of songs that veer from straight rock to folk to blues with just a smattering of country thrown in for good measure. What I can say about this album is that it does not drag and it does not bore. Clocking in at just over 50 minutes, there’s a frenetic pace to the record that make it an easy, entertaining listen. Each track offers something that I enjoyed. I think the reason I enjoyed this more than I thought I would is because it reminds me of Frank Turner so much. Like Turner, Cory Branan offers something different with each track. His lyrics are offbeat and fun, and most of all, you hear in his voice a man very much enjoying his craft. It’s a breezy, enjoyable record that I think all types of music fans can enjoy.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
Cory Branan’s sophomore effort is all over the place. I hear Elvis Costello, maybe a little Meat Puppets, and some Reigning Sound for sure. The more stripped down songs like “Tall Green Grass” instantly reminded me of Richmond singer/songwriter David Shultz. After realizing that point of reference, all I could hear is David’s vocals on these songs. Rockin’ songs like “The Prettiest Waitress In Memphis” have a more Hold Steady feel. If you’ve been reading oOYR for a few weeks, you probably have guessed that I of course I dig the noisy “The Last Man On Earth” (sidebar: have you watched the show The Last Man On Earth yet? It’s great!). Knowing Shannon Cleary’s musical preferences, this record is so up his alley. Singer/songwriter with alt-country/rock twist. RYIL: Lucero, Jason Isbell, Drive-By Truckers.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
Cory Branan’s Twelve Songs feels to me like it was two six song EPs pushed together. One is a wild, rowdy party where everyone is laughing harder than they should be and the light is giving everything a halo. The other is from several weeks later when all those friends are busy and that girl isn’t returning your calls and it seems like there’s too much booze to drink all by yourself, but you’re going to give it your best shot. The album doesn’t give any hints that the latter is going to be a part of the experience until the first several seconds of “Love Song #11 (Secretly Enamoured)” (by the way, I’m not crazy to be frustrated that that song doesn’t contain the lyrics “secretly enamored” but the next song, “Love Song #7”, does?) turn the entire trajectory of the album completely on its head, and it’s all the better for it. This is my favorite album that we’ve listened to for this project. Hell, this is my favorite album I think I’ve listened to this year at all. I’m expecting to really wrap myself in all the wildness and the melancholy of it this summer. So far, highlights are “A Girl Named GO, “Hell-bent And Heart-first,” and “The Prettiest Waitress In Memphis.”
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
A gaze that instantly clarifies 12 Songs’ somber moments.
It’s very hard not to enjoy Cory Branan’s 12 Songs right off the bat from the opening track on the record. My expectations and the reality of this album were two very different things in hindsight — all I knew before listening was that Branan was a country singer songwriter, an area where my musical knowledge is limited to pretty much Johnny Cash. “A Girl Named GO” sets the tone for the first half of the album of a stripped back but punchy sound that is eerily reminiscent or late 70s Elvis Costello. “Muhammad Ali” and the infectious “Tall Green Grass” follow a similar pattern especially the latter — any song that incorporates “coo coo ca choo” just makes me smile. The second half of the album has brooding melodrama, but doesn’t lose any of its edginess in its sound. The lyrics resonate somewhat more in a lo-fi buzz. My personal favourite track from the album “The Last Man On Earth” has beautiful torment bubbling under the surface repeating the line “Can I have everybody’s attention?” three times, followed by “Laughs the loudest drunk on Earth” which seems to suggest a brutal cry for help. In the aftermath of listening to 12 Songs, there are two very distinct notions on opposing ends of the spectrum. They bounce off each other nicely, not confusing the elements from song to song, and it all left me wanting more instead of over staying its welcome.
Matt Green (@happymad1986)
Fiery Orator Of Nostalgia
Cory Branan’s 12 Songs took me by surprise. Before I even started listening to it, I had assumed it was going to be simple acoustic tracks based on my limited knowledge of Branan’s music. But imagine my shock when I hear a full arrangement of horns on “Muhammad Ali.” There are some acoustic gems in there too as well as upbeat rock anthems, but overall the album refuses to let me get comfortable in one style of music. “The Prettiest Waitress In Memphis” and “Hell-bent And Heart-first” get me amped up and get to rock while “Love Song #11 (Secretly Enamoured)” is a ballad that tears at my heartstrings. This is an album that demands to be listened to.
Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler
I’m going to cut right to the chase: most of the uptempo numbers on Cory Branan’s 12 Songs fall flat for me thanks to lyrics that are not as clever as he may think. One exception is the delightfully hangdog “Muhammad Ali,” which has Branan riding a sixties soul groove with puckish wit and just the right words. The peppy “Tall Green Grass” also works nicely, with Branan’s overdriven fingerpicked guitar harking back to early electric blues. But when Branan gets introspective. sometimes even despondent, as on six songs here — wow. He goes dark like few can, sketching barely-there bedroom Americana that’s enormously compelling. Take “Love Song #11 (Secretly Enamoured),” which features a spare drum machine, a wavery piano melody, and some synth for Branan to ruminate over. The arrangement fills out slowly but remains resolutely mournful. “The Last Man On Earth” also shows he can exploit a wide dynamic range, exploding into the chorus and then dealing out a rocket-fueled guitar solo that is as crazed as it is short. The funny thing is that on some of the “down” songs, I can’t really tell what he’s singing about — and I don’t really care. The emotions come through loud and clear, sometimes so intimately that you want to look away. I look forward to learning more about Cory Branan because he has a rare gift. He can leave the rock & roll revival to others, but I will follow him down any sad pathway he chooses to take.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
What a beautifully sequenced record this is. Like everyone else here, I was also blown away by his ability to go from wild roots rock to introspective folk as well as his sly & adroit wordplay, but each time I listened to 12 Songs, I just became more enamored at how amazingly sequenced this album is. I think everyone’s pretty aware of sequencing, but I don’t think people use it as an effective criteria when evaluating records. It’s not the be-all-end-all for a record and yet it can effectively ruin a perfectly fine collection of songs with even the wrong placement of one song. Branan’s brilliant here with his placement and not just in the way he separates the softer songs from the more raucous. The placement of “The Last Man On Earth” with its spastic feedback jolt is just brilliant. It comes in at literally the half-way point of the record and it gives you a jolt of energy after three morose tunes that lets you know there is still juice left in the record. Also, beginning and ending the “slow” section of the record with two songs centered on a simple, yet elegant melody is beautiful making tracks 5 through 8 almost work as their own suite within his grander musical idea. I could sit here and name off my favorite track (“The Prettiest Waitress In Memphis“) and what makes it great, or I could talk about who he sounds like on the record (I think Mark “E” Everett actually), but really, what excites me most about this record is how flawlessly it flows for 50 minutes. In the end, isn’t that the most basic thing people want out of a great record?
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Holly Miranda by Holly Miranda
Chosen By Jeremy Shatan