“I pulled these songs from a batch of fifty that mostly predate the pandemic, and all of these felt kin. They’re about doubt, loss, depression, general stir-craziness.
“But I knew I didn’t want to make a record that pondered itself, I wanted it to have motion, so I gave this record an overarching rule: The sadder the song, the more it had to move and groove. That’s how the country weeper ‘That Look I Lost’ got the Motown treatment. I wanted you to nod along, then after listening ask, Wait, what am I shaking my ass to?”
When I Go I Ghost is Cory Branan’s sixth full length release. His first was 20 years ago: He ain’t banging out pulp here.
ADIOS is Cory Branan’s death record. Not the cheeriest of openings, but like all of Branan’s mercurial work, it’s probably not what you think. As funny and defiant as it is touching and sad, this self-dubbed “loser’s survival kit” doesn’t spare its subjects or the listener.
Not even Branan’s deceased father is let off the hook. In the tender homage “The Vow” he drolly cites his father’s favorite banality “that’s what you get for thinking” as “probably not the best lesson for kids.” For most songwriters that would be the punchline but Branan pushes through words and, in his father’s actions, finds a kind of “genius in the effortless way he just ‘did’.”
Not all the death on ADIOS is literal mortality. “Imogene” is sung from the wreckage of a love that once “poked fun at the pain, stoked the sun in the rain” but ends with the urgent call to “act on the embers, ash won’t remember the way back to fire.”
The trademark lyrical agility is mirrored sonically. Never a genre loyalist, ADIOS finds Branan (much like his musically restless heroes Elvis Costello and Tom Waits) coloring outside the lines in sometimes startling shades of fuzz and twang. While unafraid to play it arrow-straight when called for (“The Vow,” “Equinox,” “Don’t Go”), ADIOS veers wildly from the Buddy Holly-esque rave up “I Only Know” (sung with punk notables Laura Jane Grace and Dave Hause), through the swampy “Walls, MS” to the Costello-like new wave of “Visiting Hours.”
The blistering punk of “Another Nightmare in America” bops along daring listeners to “Look away, look away, move along, nothing to see here” (the song is written from the point of view of a racist killer cop). And as the mourning singer on “Cold Blue Moonlight” shifts from paralysis to panic, the song’s jazzy drone shifts to an almost Sabbath fury. The tonal shifts are always deliberate and not just simple genre hopping; while the turns can be jarring you can trust Branan to take you somewhere unexpected.
The 14-song album was self-produced and recorded in the spring of 2016 at Tweed Studios in Oxford, MS with a tight three piece: Branan on lead vocals and guitar (both electric and acoustic); Robbie Crowell (formerly of Deer Tick) on drums and percussion, keys, and horns; and James “Haggs” Haggerty on bass. Additionally, Amanda Shires contributes on fiddle and vocals, and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! and Dave Hause provide guest vocals.
Cory Branan has four previous full-length releases: The Hell You Say (2002, Madjack Records), 12 Songs (2006, Madjack), Mutt (2012, Bloodshot Records), and The No-Hit Wonder (2014, Bloodshot). His music has received critical praise from the likes of Rolling Stone and Rolling Stone Country, NPR All Things Considered, Noisey, Wall Street Journal, Paste Magazine, Oxford American, Consequence of Sound, Southern Living, and many others.
A former honky tonk acolyte, Adam Lee’s newest album, 'Sincerely, Me,' turns traditionalism on its head. It’s a varied and engaging collection, criss-crossing genre and influence and bringing to mind artists such as Cory Branan, Justin Townes Earle, or John Moreland.
In support of the release he's spent much of the past year on the road. He completed another European tour and played shows with Dave Alvin, Lucero, and Frank Turner.
Prior to landing in Chicago, Lee fronted Kansas City-based Adam Lee & the Dead Horse Sound Company, a scrappy alt-country outfit with traditionalist leanings. His time in the honky tonks paid off; he was nominated for Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan Awards and found homes for his country songs in writer/director Kevin Smith’s Red State and TUSK.
Following these successes, he moved to Chicago after being offered a leading role in the Tony Award-winning musical Million Dollar Quartet, under the musical direction of Chuck Mead. It was at this point he began writing and recording the songs that make up ‘Sincerely, Me,’
All told, ‘Sincerely, Me’ is a strong and diverse debut. Roots-rock songwriter Justin Wells sums up this sentiment. “Somebody’s gonna file this album under Americana, but that's because Adam Lee isn't a genre... it nods at several American musics without knowing the meaning of derivative.”
A departure indeed, but that’s something he’s used to. The son of an Air Force officer, Adam Lee spent much of his youth in transit. Music, however, was a constant, and a childhood spent moving state to state, and sometimes country to country, prepared him for a life traveling on the road. “I grew up saying goodbye,” he says, “and it teaches you to appreciate what’s on the horizon.”
Initially writing folk and alt-country, he fronted Kansas City-based Adam Lee & the Dead Horse Sound Company. Their first album ‘Ghostly Fires’ was released in 2008. The band committed to a more traditional country and western sound for their second album, ‘When the Spirits Move Me’ and logged many miles supporting the 2010 release. Lee’s time in the honky tonks paid off; he was nominated for one of Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan Awards and found homes for his country songs in feature films (writer/director Kevin Smith’s Red State and TUSK).
He’d soon found a new home for himself as well — on the Broadway stage. In 2013 he moved to Chicago after being offered a leading role in the Tony Award-winning musical Million Dollar Quartet, under the musical direction of Chuck Mead.
Lee’s wanderlust informed his writing as well, and he soon began crafting songs not tied to a style, but to a feeling. They make up a large portion of the material on ‘Sincerely, Me,’ his first solo album. “I just tried to put the best songs I’d written on the new record, the songs that moved me most, regardless of genre.” In woodshedding the new material he spent much of the past year on the road. He played shows with Frank Turner and Chuck Ragan. He completed his second European tour. He kept writing and soon, he found himself in the open-ended world of Americana.
His mutability is readily apparent throughout ‘Sincerely, Me,’ and he continually plays with genre, style, and influence. ’Sing With Me,’ is a raucous, punk inflected anthem, working to reconcile youthful and rebellious optimism with sobering adult realities. This song leads directly into ‘Patrick’ a fatalistic and tragic tale of two brothers, laid upon a sparse backdrop of Irish-styled fiddle and banjo.
The most country song of the collection, ‘What I Need,’ comes across more tragedy than two step, a deceptively upbeat confessional, uncluttered from all the smoke and neon. Underscored with upright bass and saloon-style piano Lee sings “I’m patient, and I’m thoughtful, and really, really insecure/ but I’ve found ways to make it worse.”
All told, ‘Sincerely, Me’ is a strong and diverse debut, a record reminiscent of a life spent in no one place in particular. Roots-rock songwriter Justin Wells sums up this sentiment. “Somebody’s gonna file this album under Americana, but that's because Adam Lee isn't a genre… it nods at several American musics without knowing the meaning of derivative.” In that context, the album title could be taken a different way. ‘Sincerely, Me’ is Adam Lee at his most honest, his most vulnerable, and ultimately, his most engaged. A restless mind put at ease not by comfort or consistency, but by forward momentum. Adam Lee is heading somewhere, and even if we’re not quite sure of his next stop, we’re happy to come along.