Cory Branan is a natural-born storyteller. As with any of his musical and literary pedestal sitters, from John Prine and Leonard Cohen to Raymond Carver and Márquez, his seemingly conversational, painstakingly crafted anecdotes benefit from a hard-eyed stare at hydra-headed experience.
MUTT also bears the marks of his “American gumbo” heritage: a winding path from nascent guitar shredder in the small, state-line town of Southaven, Mississippi, to fledgling troubadour in Memphis’ lauded underground music scene, and now a Nashville-based itinerant road warrior thrilling Thunderdomes as varied as Warp’s Country Throwdown and Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour. While his music tips its hat to road-map influences from Motown to Mellencamp, the Delta bluesmen to folk pickers of ‘60s Greenwich Village, the united result is a singular sound spurred on by years spent on tour honing something rare that is altogether its own.
Although each of the 13 songs stands on their own muddy feet, MUTT is a work that gains full appeal from the sum of its eclectic parts. It is a self-dubbed “choose your own adventure record” that opens with the narrator standing on the eternal corner as the songs proceed to circle the old haunts while attempting to map some way out of the roundabout. Bookending the record, two strikingly different takes on “Survivor Blues” highlight the dilemma between time and possibility, with only a qualified affirmation of redemption. The first version boasts one of the album’s signature sounds – a rustic, raucous take on pop-informed punk that might be the result if Paul Westerberg and the boys were jamming along to E Street Band demo tapes in a Tennessee living room.
But the real beauty here is in Branan’s narrative vocal delivery, especially during casual (and yet deeply revealing) asides to an anonymous suitor that could be from the pages of a Southern gothic classic, “Yellow duffel in the seat back yonder/ Bunch of pretty junk I bought her/ Yours if you want/ Either to you or the flames/ To me it’s the same.” The songs between “Survivor Blues”’s two parts look forward and back to each other, creating a two-sided mirror of meaning that is both expansive and internal. The honeyed strings and warm, insistent starlight of “Darken My Door” teases out the tenderness and comfort of sex in a way that’s bruisingly shaken by the stark, pedal-steel swelling scene of “Freefall,” when Branan’s golden, twangy coo wryly cracks, “I was fucked up as my haircut/ She was wasting good perfume.”
Like each song within it, the perspective Branan brings to MUTT isn’t tidily summarized as either sentimental or harsh. In perhaps the album’s most thematic track, “Lily” brings beauty to resignation while proposing how to make peace with the heap of worldly contradictions: “I guess the best trick is to see the magic once you’ve seen the wires.” The truth is, Branan knows nothing is ever as simple as it seems and MUTT shows the depth, wit, intelligence, dismay, and hilarity that make up the complex pedigree of every life well lived and every story worth telling.
Self-produced and recorded primarily in San Francisco at Closer Studios, the album boasts notable contributors like Ralph Carney (Tom Waits’ horn player), Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) and Jon Snodgrass (Drag The River). Additional guests include phenomenal rising talents like Amanda Shires, Danny Malone and John Elliott.