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— “What doesn’t kill you/make you wish you’d died” - “Survivor’s Blues,” Cory Branan

Back in 2010, Cory Branan holed up in San Francisco to record his new album on his own dime. There was no label, no home for this record, but that didn’t matter. He had a slew of songs and it was time to get them recorded.

The result, Mutt, which was released in May on Chicago’s Bloodshot label, is an exceptional collection of lean roots rockers marked by Branan’s undeniable lyrical gifts. He knows a good story when he hears it, or makes it up, and if he wasn’t making a living with his songs, he’d probably be a fine novelist. Heck, his press materials are as quick to name-drop writerly influences - Raymond Carver, Gabriel Garcia Marquez - as they are musical ones - John Prine, Paul Westerberg, Leonard Cohen (we’d add Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, as well).

“It took a while before I found a label to take a chance,” says Branan, 37, recently, while driving with his fiancee, Rebecca (they’ve set an August date), to a Chicago gig last month. “I shopped around a while before I found the right fit. Bloodshot has a lot of in-between artists like me that don’t exactly fit.”

Branan returns to Little Rock’s White Water Tavern (“That’s my favorite place to play. I’m not even pandering. I love playing there,” he says) for a show tonight. It will be an evening of high-quality tunes, because opening for Branan will be Oklahoma City’s Audra Mae, who has written for Susan Boyle, and Arkansas’ critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Adam Faucett.

Mutt is Branan’s third album and a follow-up to 2006’s 12 Songs (there was also a split record in 2009 called, appropriately enough, Split LP, in which he shared songs with Jon Snodgrass).

Befitting its title, Mutt embraces its underdog scruff with pride and refuses to bepinned down. There’s the tender, fingerpicking folk of “The Corner”; the barroom rocker “Bad Man”; the lullaby lilt of “There, There, Little Heartbreaker”; and the afterhours gypsy grooves of “The Snowman”; yet it all sounds of one piece, and not just a cobbled-together patchwork.

“The way we arranged and recorded the songs, I wanted to hear them as I wrote them,” Branan says. “The arrangements were intuitive and as a result, they were all over the place.”

Speaking of all over the place, “The Snowman” owes a debt to Branan hero Tom Waits, and even features Waits’ horn player Ralph Carney.

“It already had a Tom Waits feel and I was a little wary of it, but it turned out pretty good once [Carney] played on it,” Branan says, adding with a laugh that he wished he could pull off the gruff vocal croak of Waits.

From there Branan, who was born in Southaven, Miss., and grew up in Memphis, easily shifts to country-pop territory on the nostalgic “Yesterday (Circa Summer ’80 Something),” a breezy reminiscence of a suburban childhood crush complete with acid-washed jeans and waterbeds that can bring goose bumps to those who came of age in the ’80s.

“I’ve written a few songs about that period of my life,” Branan says (see “Skateland South” from Hell You Say). “Those times of awkward adolescence are colored so vividly, they’re good for any songwriter, I think.”

Serving as sort of bookends to Mutt are two versions of “Survivor’s Blues,” with the first being a revved-up rocker and the second an acoustic take that closes the album. Both are notable, telling the tale of a couple looking for a way out of their dead-end lives. There are knuckle tattoos, some bad luck, a warped Friedrich Nietzsche quote, a stolen car and the belief that salvation, or at least a brief taste of freedom, might be just around the corner.

The decision to include two versions of the same song is partly from Branan putting an independent stamp on the album - “I want to be free to be able to do music the way I hear it” - and also because both takes show different sides of Branan, the observant folkie and the brawling rocker, that serves as a sort of thesis of Mutt.

For tonight’s show, he has left the band at home and it will be just man and guitar. It makes touring a little easier, he says.

“We’ve been touring with Audra Mae and she’s really good. The shows have been going well.”

Branan lives in Nashville now, but made his mark as a songwriter first in Memphis, and was immortalized in the Lucero song “Tears Don’t Matter Much” by his pal, Little Rock native Ben Nichols.

“It’s great to be from Memphis,” Branan says, “but it’s a little bit of a ratty town.

You get thrown in and you learn hard and fast. It’s sink or swim. I think if I’d been from a town with a singersongwriter tradition, where people sat and listened, I might not have learned to really work for it.

“You learn how to wrestle a crowd and that’s come in handy.”Cory Branan

Opening acts: Audra Mae, Adam Fau


9 p.m. today, White Water Tavern, 2500

W. Seventh St., Little Rock

Admission: $8

(501) 375-8400

Weekend, Pages 34 on 07/19/2012

Print Headline: White Water fan to drag Mutt in there tonight

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