Shouts and Murmurs
Singer-songwriter Cory Branan revels in contradiction
“Cory Branan’s got an evil streak, and a way with words that’ll bring you to your knees.”— Lucero
Vertigo features brother-sister pairing
Vertigo includes Jason Rudrick, Justin Stanley, Lindsey Stanley, and Shawn Parella.
How come no one ever makes use of the fact that the words “enamored” and “hammered” rhyme? Brilliant. It’s barstool observations like this one that first reel you in when you listen to Nashville-based singer-songwriter Cory Branan. But then, like some of the best songwriters, it’s the more subtle nuances that keep you listening, and wondering why in the world hasn’t Branan gotten more acclaim in his career thus far.
To be fair, Branan’s previous album, The Hell You Say , did win him a fair amount of national press, most notably with Rolling Stone dubbing him an equal of Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst and John Prine. From a critic’s perspective, all three comparisons are at least somewhat applicable, but they left Branan a bit mystified. “I’m not influenced by Ryan Adams at all, so that cracks me up when people say that,” Branan says, in his drawling Memphis-raised gentlemanly voice. “I’ll take the John Prine comment any day though. The first time I heard his music, I just wanted to sit and have a beer with him. He’s just poetic, big-hearted and goofy.”
Branan could be describing his own music, which is by nature much less sobering than Oberst’s or Adams’. Both artists tend to take themselves pretty seriously—which isn’t always a bad thing—but it’s just not Branan’s style. It’s not uncommon for him to crack a joke or breach an atypical cultural reference, like bonding with a girl over the pilot episode of Miami Vice , in the middle of a song.
Still, diverting from humor, Branan’s love songs are spelled with capital L’s, soft and woozy, thoughtful and elated—which perhaps warrants some Adams comparisons, circa Heartbreaker of course.
With his latest album, 12 Songs , Branan keeps with the same temperamental mood as The Hell You Say , mostly because the songs were all written at the same time. “The songs are old as hell,” Branan admits. “I’m a big fan of records that go wherever they want to go. I’m not loyal to any aesthetic.”
True to Branan’s word, 12 Songs definitely wanders the stylistic map. There are the garage-rock numbers—full of piss and vinegar and references to breakin’ speed limits and the rules of love—like “Girl Named Go” and “Hell-bent and Heart-first.” Then there’s the twangier “Tall Green Grass,” and the kicked-up blues tribute “Mohammed Ali (and me),” breaking the flow of the introspective deluge that typically sweeps Branan, and his listeners, away.
And while a slew of songwriters get bogged down in that introspection to the point of indulgence, Branan’s songs come off as self-effacing as his aw-shucks interview manner. “I mean, I hope I’m not indulgent. There’s definitely a line though, and I just have to write the fuck through it, and then go back and edit,” he says. “I try not to worry about it, though, because I have to be indulgent when I write. You have to get past the 13 voices in your head. I’m just not a very self-indulgent person. I’m very aware, almost to a crippling degree. It’s a bi-product of a polite upbringing, I guess.”
While the southern boy in Branan definitely shines through on the brasher songs, there’s an underlying calm to this record that could lull a cranky baby on a bumpy hayride. “I guess my relation to this record was just stillness, and just calming my life down,” he explains. Of course, he later admits, “don’t get me wrong, stillness is what I strive for. But I don’t listen to myself half the time.”
Branan’s contradictions only make him more likeable, and accessible. In fact, he has a certifiable complex about playing onstage and not entertaining people, not reaching out. In a show, he has the habit of backing away from the mike when his lyrics reach the money-shot to the heart, then easing back in. For emphasis, maybe? Nope, simple stagefright. “It’s necessity. I’m just a spaz. When I first started playing I was petrified. I still get nervous but I find ways to channel it,” he says. “I’m not impressed with my stage presence, so I just try to have fun with it. I try not to be like, ‘here’s my song, I’m gonna play it and you’re gonna listen.’”
Of course, that’s exactly the scenario, but when you’re as self-deprecating as Branan, maybe you have to rationalize the situation. Maybe that’s what makes his songs so damn good. Maybe, the words echoed into the microphone from a few feet back are the very ones worth straining to listen for.
Who: Cory Branan
by Mike Gibson
Listening to Vertigo’s slickly produced local CD …and miles to go before we sleep , it’s hard to imagine anything other than Lindsey Stamey’s mesmerizing alto croon at the fore of the band’s alternately wistful and driving songs. But the four-piece Morristown outfit might well have had another, less evocative singer fronting them if drummer Justin Stamey—Lindsey’s brother—hadn’t relented.
“He was very reluctant to have me in the band,” says Lindsey, now 21, recounting Vertigo’s origin over a cappuccino at a local bookstore coffee shop. “I was always upstairs at our house while they were auditioning singers, thinking ‘Pick me! Pick me!’”
“I was a little hesitant about having little sis following me around,” Justin admits. “But Jason [Rudnick, guitarist] kept saying, ‘Look what we have right under our noses.’ And it’s true. Lindsey came out singing when she was born.”
Then he adds, with the kind of smugness only a sibling could pull off without repercussion: “Plus, it’s good to have someone that I can really get after, and I know she still has to like me tomorrow.”
Those auditions were six years ago, and the band that came out of them was Melatonin, a precursor that included three of the four members of what is now Vertigo. The former outfit was reconstituted, undergoing a name change about a year and a half ago, when bassist Shawn Parella came into the fold. A friend of Rudnick’s from a previous band, Parella proved to be the group’s missing piece, bringing his more eclectic tastes—for New Age, ambient, electronic, industrial and so-called world musics—to bear on Melatonin’s prog-ish, post-Pink Floyd sound.
The results are telling. Released in January, …and miles to go before we sleep retains some of the moody instrumental textures of Melatonin, yet provides Lindsey with a less cluttered canvas on which to render her lyric portraits of heartbreak and emotional struggle.
“Our songs were longer before,” Lindsey says. “We’re more radio friendly now, but still progressive. Vertigo is a lot easier to swallow for people. Melatonin was sometimes off on its own little planet.”
In concert, Vertigo makes for an experience that is at once musically expansive and—thanks to their demonstrative young frontwoman—emotionally affecting. Says Rudnick, “Shawn and I are really into post-rock stuff like Godspeed You Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky. We’ll incorporate segues and intros that have that kind of feel to them in our live show. It sets the mood, and also makes our show different from our record. It’s not just a regurgitation.”
Lindsey, for her part, brings a disarmingly open-hearted quality to her performances, the same kind of unfiltered emotional honesty exhibited by some of her singing idols—Bjork, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple. That heart-on-her-sleeve instinct is so powerful, in fact, that she admits she sometimes cries onstage. “I was reluctant to step out and let go when I first joined the band, but I quite like the attention now,” she says. “I’m still letting go just a little more every show.
“Most of my songs are about inner conflicts, things I’m battling with. I’m usually a mellow person; I keep everything bottled up. Then I let it out onstage.”
Vertigo’s members feel like they’ve gained momentum in recent months, having played a handful of strong shows at Blue Cats in Knoxville’s Old City; they still look at their first Blue Cats show as a rite of passage, of sorts, a sign that they had come of age on Knoxville’s music scene.
They also play regularly in Chattanooga, Johnson City and Asheville, N.C., in addition to hosting a home show once every three months at the Downtown, a Pilot Light-sized venue in Morristown.
Their goals—to travel and record and make a living off music—are lofty, yet not entirely unreasonable for a band with a compelling lead singer and a clutch of good songs. “I’d like to be able to do this and only this,” says Justin. “I think we’re all in agreement on that.”
Sister Lindsey adds that, “I’d like to make the same impression on other people as my favorite musicians have had on me.
“I was looking out into the audience when we were playing the other night, and for the first time I noticed that they were singing along with me,” she adds. “What a gratifying feeling that was. It was like seeing your dreams unfold in front of you.”
Who: Vertigo, opening for Verona (CD release show), also w/ Adoration