Even the most casual music fans have at least a few artists whose career they follow closely. They know when the next CD is coming out, they know their upcoming tour dates and if said band is coming to their city. And, at the concert, they probably know the words to every song. Personally, I have a small number of artists that fit that bill. The short list looks something like:
My Morning Jacket
The first three are arguably the greatest, still relevant bands on earth. My Morning Jacket has as much regional appeal as anyone. Dylan is Dylan. Lucero is the hometown favorite. And Cory Branan? What if I told you he's a combination of all six? And that his latest CD, 12 Songs, proves it?
Coming off the heralded release of The Hell You Say, Cory Branan did more press than Gutenberg. He played Letterman. Carson (Daly). Appeared nipples-ablaze in Rolling Stone. He was, whether he liked it or not, a singer-songwriter with widespread commercial success, critical acclaim, and posterboy marketability. When RS declared him a peer to Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst, they were really throwing the latter two a bone. Here was an album with no melodramatic excesses, no minced words, and no self-aggrandizing condescension. It Ginsu-sharp. Folks could not wait to see what Cory would do next.
But they waited anyway. And waited. And...waited. Four years later, 12 Songs arrived two years old. After its completion, it sat in post-production for nearly two years because of label troubles. Meanwhile, press had slowed. Sales had slowed. Fans were asking, "what now?"
With these twelve songs, Cory rests all doubt. 12 Songs, unlike his first, is largely a rock album, exhibiting the widest range of Branan's talents. Here, arrangement and intrumental experimentation (more on this in a minute) share the spotlight with his patented lyrical gifts. Given the new medium of 3-minute pop/rock songs, Cory's lyrical lexicon has taken an accordingly accessible and rhythmic turn. We've replaced "I once knew the love of a wife/sometimes the nectar, sometimes the knife" with "Through the dark of the car I see her eyes aglow/I'm in love with a girl named Go." Cory emphasizes sharp, concise storytelling and refrain-based repetition to fit the new songwriting formats. Songs like "Girl Named Go," "Muhammed Ali (and me)," "Prettiest Waitress in Memphis," "Hell-Bent and Heart-first" and "She's My Rock and Roll" make a clear statement about the musical direction of the album and the reason for that change of course. She is, after all, his rock and roll. So listen accordingly.
The album seems to have two heads: the aforementioned traditional rockers and the experiemental ballads. "Love Song 7" (which deserves its own 2000-word entry), "Love Song 11," and "Sweet Janine" occupy a vastly different space. Both Love Songs use electronic instrumentation as intrinsic parts of each song, not experimental decoration. The swirling, dreamy instrumental section of "Love Song 7" seems to take the listener into the emotional world of this particular girl, while the electronic backbone of "Love Song 11" emphasizes the beautiful but awkward nature of this woman's "waltz."
Interestingly, two of the album's standout tracks exist in a sonic middleground. The herky, distorted arrangement of "Tall Green Grass" is enough to surprise anyone who's heard Cory's acoustic live version over the years. But, for a song that invests in fondly and accurately recalling a specifically beautiful moment in time, the "weird" studio arrangement inexplicably works. This song, like its story, is fundamentally beautiful although rough around the edges. And "Last Man on Earth," (my current favorite) seems an aesthetic sequel to "Greenstreet Lullabye," right down to the screeching guitars that interrupt and echo the emotional climax of the lyric ("tonight I'll tie one on real good/just like the last man on earth would/if he never got to say "sorry, my sweet girl"). At its core, it is a multi-dimensional lyric with sharp storytelling and a simply gorgeous melody.
Overall, 12 Songs is so clearly different from The Hell You Say in both intent, theme, and execution that it's unfair and ultimately unproductive to compare the two in terms of "bettter" or "worse." While Branan's first album is fundamentally a collection of folk songs, its follow-up is a revved-up rock record with a side of electronic experimentation. Though they are both clearly sucessful albums, it's hard to say what kind of impact 12 Songs will have in the long and illustrious wake of its predecessor.
I have a hunch, however, that Branan's importance hinges not so much on the strength of his own songs, but on his increasing impact on the wider musical landscape. Already thirty, Branan finds himself the voice for a generation that never was--the entire age strata between GenX and GenY. And, much like his hero Tom Waits, he seems destined to fill an absolutely crucial position of transitioner and trailblazer, marking the terrain for a next and broader generation of songwriters, lyricists, and, more accurately, poets. You might not hear Cory on your Top 40 station, but chances are the next Dylan or Cobain will have studied his entire catalogue.
And, if Cory's most recent live performances are any indication, his latest batch of songs might well be his best. What 12 Songs proves is that Cory Branan's best remains as good as anyone's.