Though the cover art is bizarre to say the least, I thought I knew what I was getting into when I got a copy of Mutt by Cory Branan. I was introduced to Branan’s songs via a split he released with Jon Snodgrass and it seemed like he played somewhat speedy and energetic folk music. Mutt begins with a re-recording of a song off that split, “The Corner.” This version doesn’t sound quite as full and a little slower, coming in at nearly a minute longer. While I personally prefer the previous version, that may be simply due to familiarity; either way, the song is a strong, though somewhat misleading opening to the album--a slow, mellow song with an acoustic guitar as the only instrumentation.
The next song, “Survivor Blues,” is a song I thought I was familiar with from a YouTube video of Branan performing it for Punks in Vegas, so it was surprising to hear a full band, more rock-leaning version of the track. The song is one of the better example of Branan’s storytelling abilities on the album as his lyrics paint scenes involving knuckle tattoos, stolen cars and a chorus reminding the listener that “if it make you stronger / First you gotta survive / What doesn’t kill you make you wish you died” and, though the full band brings a different meaning to the song, Branan is still able to play with the quieter parts of the song and his vocal delivery to bring out the right emotions. Another “rock” song, “Bad Man,” follows. The song’s use of piano complements the vocals and musicianship perfectly, turning a really great song into an excellent song and is just one example of the album’s many usages of piano that work to really bring out that something special in each song.
The Ryan-Adams-and-the-Cardinals-esque “Darken My Door” brings the energy down. Though I love Adams, the song is one of my lesser favorite songs, especially as a slower, mellower song following two fast songs. Then things get weird with the beautiful, string-accompanied “There There, Little Heartbreaker”--Branan’s distinct voice is still there, but beside that, it sounds like a different album came on. The heavy use of harps makes the song dreamlike and the lyrics are strong. The genre-changing continues with the reed-heavy “The Snowman.” Branan’s vocals are haunting, half-whispered over reeds and other instruments and the song ends with the phrase “but there was a time when…” seemingly leading into the “Yesterday (Circa Summer 80 Somethin’)” beginning with “It was undeniably summer / I was certifiably cool / In my acid washed jacket and my stone washed jeans / I rose out of the kiddie pool.”
“Yesterday (Circa Summer 80 Somethin’)”, an upbeat southern rock song is the clear single. It is a testament to Branan that he can pull off a line like “and damn it girl, truly god damn it girl, truly god damn it girl, truly god damn!” but Branan has always managed to find a balance between heartfelt songwriting--even in a danceable song about summer--and keeping his humor on the forefront.
The next song is the speedily delivered, but much more stripped down “Karen’s Song,” about a woman (presumably Karen) who “lines [Branan’s] coat with kites”--presumably, metaphorically. While not exactly my favorite song when I first heard it, the song has a certain charm that has grown on me quite a bit. Then “The Freefall” really slows things down with a song about drinking and, as the chorus goes “Truth be told / All that we saw / Was something to hold / Through the freefall,” settling for someone you aren't in love with for the time being.
“Jericho” starts off slow and quiet before the rest of the band comes in and things get dancey and fast--which is followed by things stopping to build up again with a guest vocalist with clean vocals singing “No one knows how no one feels / I wonder why I bother” layered with Branan singing “And on and on, on and on, and off!” Things continue on relatively quietly with “Hold Me Down,” a song that uses strings well to bring out the emotion of the lyrics, but overall is a standard folk-rock song from Branan. Things wrap up with two more quiet, sad songs. “Lily” is a song about looking back on a past relationship and has my favorite lines of the album with a chorus of “Lily, I guess the best trick is to see the magic / Once you’ve seen the wires.”
Closing the album is the version of “Survivor Blues” I expected when the second song came on--an acoustic, quieter and less energetic rendition. The song is a very different take and doesn’t feel like an unnecessary rehashing, though I wonder why that particular song was chosen to be on the album twice.
Branan hasn’t released an album since 2006’s 12 Songs, which he stated was just that, 12 songs--more of a collection of songs than an album. Mutt still can, at times, feel like a collection because of Branan's eclectic influences. The songs on Mutt are all enjoyable and do a good job of toeing the line with some powerful emotion, but also with a certain sense of humor in many. Branan knows exactly what he is doing as a songwriter, but his influences are spread a bit too all over the place for an entirely cohesive album. My biggest complaint is that just when I’m getting into the rock songs like “Survivor Blues” and “Bad Man,” things turn into “Darken My Door” and "There There, Little Heartbreaker." Then again, the album is a “mutt," so its insistence on not sticking to one genre is only fitting.