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Cory Branan | The Hell You Say (Madjack)
Despite picking up major plaudits in the US, thus far Southhaven, Mississippi born, Memphis-based Cory Branan's debut 'The Hell You Say' has barely registered on radar screens this side of the Atlantic.
As other critics have already remarked, Branan does indeed sound very much like Ryan Adams and musically he is also covering similar territory.  In itself that's probably not enough to get particularly excited about I agree, but if Cory Branan never recorded another thing in his life 'The Hell You Say' could easily surpass the pinnacle of many artists' achievements in a career ten times long.  It's certainly the equal of Adams' best work and far surpasses anything he deemed fit for release on last years' patchy 'Demolition' collection.  Quite why nobody has noticed Branan over here I really can't fathom because this is genuinely one of the best albums I have heard for sometime, the kind of album which, come years end, I'll still hold dear and the kind of which, in all honesty, number only a handful each year, if that.
Branan might not vary his musical palate all that much here and I've yet to see him perform live, but there are enough hints here to suggest that his claim that he never performs his material twice may well be true.  Having thoroughly absorbed the evidence available it would come as no surprise to find him more than capable of adapting and transcending styles as if it were second nature.  
The album opens in rambunctious fashion with 'Miss Ferguson', an apparently true tale of a fondly remembered, though at the time, clandestine love affair between Branan and a former employer.  It's a triumphant and rousing collision of Byrdsian jangle, early Whiskeytown's irrepressible energy and hints of the bands' rustic Americana.  A whole album of material just like it would have made me very happy ?? thank you very much.  As the album develops though, it soon becomes apparent that Cory Branan is no one-trick pony.  With the exception of 'Jolene' (not the Dolly Parton song) an equally boisterous outing to 'Miss Ferguson', for the most part Branan pares his songs to their acoustic core.  These are deeply personal evocations of fragile vulnerability, frequently offset by an appealing streak of self-deprecation and a memorable turn of phrase.  As relatively unplugged as they are, it's virtually impossible to imagine songs like 'Skateland South', a mesmerising tale of a teenage crush or the epic minimalist pop of 'Spoke Too Soon' being anymore powerful.  
Augmented by an impressive group of musicians, their subtle understated contributions are an integral part on this excellent set.  Instrumentally amongst the alt-country/Americana staples such as Dobro, banjo and mandolin can also be found strings, kazoo and sampled beats.  Cory Branan is unquestionably the real talent here, yet the tangible camaraderie conveyed on the live hootenanny-like recording of 'Wayward and Down' demonstrates he's more than happy to share the spotlight with his fellow musicians, several of whom get their turn at the microphone.  
'The Hell You Say': thirteen songs, not a dud amongst them, performed by a star in the making (if there's any justice!).  Truly this is a fabulous album and one that deserves a wider audience so someone please get this man over here and release this album when you're about it!

Geraint Jones
CWAS #13 - Autumn 2003