The No-Hit Wonder
The No-Hit Wonder is both a celebratory anthem of the world-weary, undefeated underdogs of the world, and a coming to terms with the cards life has dealt you.
Throughout his decade-and-a-half-long career, Cory Branan has been too punk for country, too country for punk, too Memphis for Nashville, and probably a little too Cory Branan for anyone’s damn good. He has proven himself as a top-notch songwriter (Chuck Ragan recently called him “the greatest songwriter of our generation”), fierce lyricist (in Lucero’s “Tears Don’t Matter Much” they sing that Cory has, “a way with words that’ll bring you to your knees”), and a hyperdynamic performer with the ability to fingerpick finer than ‘60s Greenwich Village folkies and brutally strum like a proto punk shredder. Across three albums, he’s made collective struggles poetic and breakthroughs into sympathetic acts of populist heroism.
A praise-filled pitch is nearly irrelevant, though, because the songs do all the convincing on his new, fourth album The No-Hit Wonder. There’s a timeless craftsmanship in these deceptively simple songs about love and home, losses and dreams. Branan’s had his fair share of each since completing his critically acclaimed Bloodshot debut MUTT in 2012, losing several beloved family members, getting married, and having two kids. He spent all this time touring heavily with artists across the spectrum, including The Gaslight Anthem and Jason Isbell (who appears here on “You Make Me” and “The Highway Home”). The pull of settling down and push of life’s unavoidable unsettlings inform much of the new record, which navigates the lows while celebrating the highs with fresh urgency.
This heightened appreciation of home finds Branan returning to his tangled roots. Being raised on the border between musical mecca Memphis, TN and the kudzu-crowned hill country of North Mississippi will do strange things to a boy. On TNHW Branan sonically ignores territorial lines, mixing in the traditional Sun Records-era doghouse bass and whiplash guitar of “Sour Mash,” alongside lonesome vintage steel of “The Highway Home.” Then there’s the Hüsker Dü driving bass, Replacements skronk, and malted Morrissey croon of “Missing You Fierce,” and The Faces-meet-Zevon excitability of the opener “You Make Me.”
The No-Hit Wonder - song and album - is both a celebratory anthem of the world-weary, undefeated underdogs of the world, and a coming to terms with the cards life has dealt you. While the title track may sound autobiographical, it was written for fellow troubadours “living blood to string/hand to mouth.” And when the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and Steve Selvidge join in singing “it is what it is/blood to string,” it becomes everybody’s fight.
Lyrically, there’s plenty of Branan’s trademark rakish humor (in “The Only You”: “Got me another girl/she looks like you… at 23/but while she sleeps I trace the places where your tattoos used to be”) and unforced Southern imagery (in “You Make Me”: “Now I’m happy as a bluebird in a bottle tree”). Not that it’s all sunshine and honeysuckle; in “All I Got and Gone,” the singer ransacks his decaying house in search of a missing note, while lamenting “The heart has four darkened drawers and secrets from itself.”
For his fourth album Branan called on a who’s who cast of heroes and no-hit-wonder peers to flash up the proceedings. Finn and Selvidge of the Hold Steady, Isbell, Caitlin Rose and Austin Lucas (“All the Rivers in Colorado”), and Tim Easton (“Sour Mash”) all lend their voices to the cause, while some of Nashville’s finest players - Audley Freed (The Black Crowes), John Radford (Justin Townes Earle, Luella and The Sun), Sadler Vaden (The 400 Unit, Drivin and Cryin), and Robbie “The Man of Steel” Turner (Waylon Jennings, Charlie Rich) - hammer the damn thing home.