Bringing It Home
A pair of former Memphians — one in Nashville now, the other in London — release new albums.
Two expatriate Memphians return late this spring with fine new albums — former Beale stalwart jazz ace Charlie Wood, now based in London, and folk-rock troubadour Cory Branan, who recently landed in Nashville.
Released in the U.S. on April 17th (after a March 12th release in the United Kingdom), Wood’s new album Lush Life is his first since Flutter & Wow in 2009, which was also the year that the Memphis native relocated overseas.
Wood made his way as a sideman early on, touring the U.S. and Europe behind Memphis blues great Albert King, and then emerged as a leading figure on Beale Street, where he played a nightly residency at King’s Palace Café for years when he wasn’t recording or touring. Wood’s music had a blues/R&B base but was more oriented toward sophisticated-yet-soulful jazz and pop, driven by his rich, dexterous vocals and warm Hammond B3 organ playing.
Touring had taken Wood to Britain many times, where he built a fan base and connections. London’s a good jazz town and Wood decided to give it a try. So far he hasn’t looked back, Wood’s roots in his new home deepened by a marriage to English actress and jazz singer Jacqui Dankworth (the daughter of composer John Dankworth and Grammy-nominated singer Cleo Laine).
But while Wood is based in London now, Lush Life, like Flutter & Wow before it, is being released by Memphis’ Archer Records. Wood recorded the album — with Dankworth producing and dueting on “Alone Together” — during three sessions in January 2011 at Archer’s Music + Arts Studio, while Wood and his wife were in town visiting his family.
Where Flutter & Wow focused on Wood’s own witty, sharp-elbowed songwriting and his contemporary pop sensibility via versions of songs by Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello, Lush Life is a departure. It’s Wood’s first album of all covers, a “Great American Songbook”-style collection of standards. And it features the organ-identified Wood in a solo piano-and-voice context.
The album has bluesy elements. Wood opens with a dizzying take on “Route 66” that’s cocktail jazz veering into be-bop, mixing smooth vocals and hard piano. And the penultimate track is a strutting take on New Orleans legend Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina.” But more often the album’s focus is on classic jazz and crooner pop.
The tinkling title track comes from Duke Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, with other sources including Tin Pan Alley composer Jerome Kern (“All the Things You Are”), Broadway greats Lerner & Loewe (“On the Street Where You Live”), and jazz-pop giant Jimmy McHugh (“On the Sunny Side of the Street”).
A North Mississippi native who emerged as one of the most promising figures on the Memphis music scene a little more than a decade ago, singer-songwriter Cory Branan made waves with his 2001 debut album The Hell You Say, a precocious batch of literate, funny, and at times moving folk-rock songs reminiscent of artists such as John Prine and Todd Snider.
Branan’s early buzz — and songs worthy of it — landed him some high-profile notices, including a full-page feature in Rolling Stone and an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. But in the crapshoot that is the music industry, Branan wasn’t able to fully capitalize on this early momentum, a follow-up album — 12 Songs — coming four or five years after his debut and also released via the small Memphis indie Madjack Records.
In the dozen years since The Hell You Say, Branan has knocked around, alternating time in Memphis with stints in other music-oriented cites, including Los Angeles, New York, and Austin, Texas. More recently he’s been all but living on the road, focusing on constant touring, before settling in Nashville as a home base last year.
There was reason to wonder if Branan was ever going to release an album on a label with a national profile, but that’s finally changed this spring with the release of Mutt, his third album and first for venerable Chicago-based roots label Bloodshot Records, which is due out on May 22nd.
The album, which opens with a naked but darkly funny consideration of Branan’s career difficulties called “The Corner” (“Weren’t no experiment/These seven years they went/Like life out of me”), is a reminder of Branan’s considerable gifts. The anthemic “Survivor Blues” puts a mischievous Bonnie & Clyde spin on the Bruce Springsteen-style road-as-escape scenario
(“[My car’s] parked out back/It’s pointed out of state/A recent acquisition/We should probably ditch the plates”). The chiming “Badman” (“Okay, I’m a bad man/But I think a bad man would do you good”) is a swaggering paean to romantic expediency. And “Yesterday” is knowing “heartland rock” that references John Cougar Mellencamp as a coming-of-age soundtrack (“You were a walking want ad/You had summer on your side/Our front yards faced each other from across the great divide”).