What Paul Westerberg did for sensitive Minnesotans, Cory Branan does for sensitive Southern boys on The Hell You Say. In lyrics wry, sweet, sad and utterly true (imagine if Westerberg’s Tim consisted solely of tracks like "Kiss Me on the Bus" and "Waitress in the Sky"), Branan’s characters populate skating rinks and dive bars, work dead-end jobs and chase after dead-end girls. Working in the oft-mined territory of drinking and relationships, Branan keeps things fresh through his sincerity and perspective. He skips from the nostalgic "Skateland South" to the darkly possessive "Love Song 8" without missing a beat, equally at home with lighthearted ditties about girls and more serious meditations on relationships. Starting out with the unbearably catchy Elvis Costello-esque "Miss Ferguson," and then all the way through to the plaintive longing of "Closer," Branan manages a balancing act of insight tempered with humor few songwriters can manage.
Branan’s greatest feat is keeping the record from becoming an overwrought teen pop journal or nostalgia trip while he takes the listener through all the torturous phases of singleness, from the treachery of junior-high dances to the later, futile search for love amidst the scars. The sacred melds into the profane as crushes take on Biblical proportions, and the most important issue in life is whether or not that special girl knows how to spell his name. He references diners, arcade games, hitchhiking, soap operas and fake tattoos, throwing out fresh similes to spruce up the old singer-songwriter clichés. The music, as flexible as the lyrics, maintains its melodicism through forays into guitar pop, honky-tonk and solo acoustic strumming.
By his own admission, Branan isn’t a master musician, but he gets help from plenty of Memphis’ finest, including members of labelmates Lucero and The Pawtuckets on "Wayward and Down," a rootsy ballad that would make Willie Nelson proud.
Branan’s persona is often that of an emotionally stunted adolescent—but a more complex, funny and interesting one than most. His songs are fresh and brilliant, and anyone who’s ever been young and lovelorn will understand.