Mutt is right. Cory Branan is no purebred. He boasts no pedigree, no papers. Instead, he’s a stray who wanders in off the street, of mixed breed: Is he another confessional singer/songwriter? An alt-country straggler? A frat-rock folk-hero? A Memphis misfit? A Southern voice descended more from Clyde Edgerton and Larry Brown than from Ronnie Van Zandt? Truth is, he’s a bit of everything, hanging around on the edges of various genres and taking what he needs from each. To date, he’s had a strange career: Rolling Stone thought enough of his witty 2002 debut, The Hell You Say, to devote a full-page spread to a beefcake shot of the Memphian, shirt unbuttoned just so. His follow-up took four years; his third album, six.
But he’s worth the wait. Few songwriters sum up the contradictions of beery romance—of bad men drinking in barrooms, of heartbreakers darkening your door—with quite as much grit, wit and compassion as Branan, who can turn a phrase on a dime. “Day-drinking and dreaming of you, I let the ashtray some my last cigarette,” he sings on opener “The Corner,” which sums up his ethos perfectly. “Darken My Door” bests anything Ryan Adams has written since Heartbreaker, and “Yesterday (Circa Summer 80 Somethin’)” is a bittersweet teenage reverie that rewrites Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” into your new summer jam: “You were a walking want ad, you had summer on your side,” he leers. “You were dancing barefoot on the picnic table and dammit girl truly goddamit girl truly goddamit girl truly goddam!”
Branan’s unruly cowlick of a voice may be the perfect vehicle for his lusty lyrics, capable of redeeming even some of his flatter sentiments (I’m thinking “she lines my coat with kites” on “Karen’s Song,” which shouldn’t work but somehow does). Being a musical mutt means taking risks, which Branan does with glee. Mutt is, appropriately, all over the damn place: “The Freefall” has a dusty southwestern vibe reminiscent of Calexico, “Badman” Springsteen’s flair for drama, “Survivor’s Blues” the momentum of a drunk escapade in a stolen car.
Occasionally, Branan’s range can be a bit dizzying, resulting in some jarring transitions that trip up the middle third of Mutt. With its delicately plucked strings and crooner melodies, “Lil Heartbreaker” leads directly into the gypsy ballad “Snowman,” which sounds like a Tom Waits castoff. They’re two of the weakest tracks here, and their pairing is all the more self-conscious and showy from an artist who otherwise sounds like he has absolutely nothing to prove. Mutt is a mess of an album, but I mean that in the best way possible.