Brannon – The Road Less Traveled

 Brannon – The Road Less Traveled

Brannon – The Road Less Traveled – Album Review

When you look at Brannon’s social media and find Daughtry, Bruce Springsteen, Def Leppard & Bon Jovi in the ‘artists we also like’ section, that’ll tell you something instantly.  Or it should anyhow…it definitely tells me something.  You can infer big, bold, imagery-laden & powerful songwriting that is built upon bulletproof hooks…love or hate those named influences, those are some of the biggest names in music that have delivered hit after hit, year after year.  It’s a virtual certainty that many of the artists/bands we look up to rub off on us through our music…but it’s those common threads that exist in between them all that you can be sure to hear in the sound of the new band in question; and you’ll find that’s true of Brannon and the strong songwriting you’ll find on The Road Less Traveled.

Even with the addition of Daughtry and Ed Sheeran onto Brannon’s list…those listed also suggest another important aspect of the writing…which is that it comes from the old-school.  DON’T throw things at me just yet…let me explain because that doesn’t equate to being out of step – it’s more of a nod to the classic art of what I’d consider to be the more traditional-side of Rock-writing.  You can listen to a modern day indie band and have them describe love through bizarre metaphors that are sung more like inside-jokes or firsthand knowledge only a handful of people might share…and it might be BEAUTIFUL even…and then they’ll call it something like “Dan’s Moldy Grey Suitcase Filled With Tears.”  You don’t get that kind of indirect songwriting in a writer like Brannon…this is much more pointed, focused & direct lyricism whereby you’re almost certain to get the title of the song showing up in the chorus hook.  You can even assume that many of these songs might have started with that central idea or theme in its title and expanded into a full-on song from there…tons of writers from Desmond Child to Diane Warren have certainly used similar methods and found tremendous success.  Jonathon Brannon might very well get added to that list along with Child, Warren and Valance…those kind of writers…the aces that many a band & artist have called upon when they need a guaranteed hit to find their way to radio & the mainstream.  He’s keeping good company as far as I’m concerned & I really believe you can hear the sincerity in the songwriting shine through here in the combination between Brannon’s writing, lyrics and guitars alongside the enlisted vocal talents of dynamic singer David Cagle.  Much like Brannon was clearly raised on some influential artists, you also don’t get Cagle’s instincts & sound without a ton of time spent listening, learning & singing along with those powerful voices out there in Rock’s history.

I will say this…depending on what you’re listening for in your music, you’ll probably know whether or not Brannon’s new record will connect with you personally from the way that the album’s title-track “The Road Less Traveled” begins.  Lyrically…you can hear that directness in the imagery and structure of how it flows…in a way you’ll feel like you know what to expect – for some people, that’s an extremely comforting aspect of music that is truly sought after.  “The Road Less Traveled” has an uplifting sentiment in behind its melancholy…it’s an underdog story at its core and we ALL love one of those.  With some of the lines being explored many times in music…other people out there might be looking for something more indirect or metaphoric; and there you have it…the divide that will likely split those degrees of what makes it accessible to many and less likely to hit home with others.  I view songwriting like this to be very much like fitting puzzle pieces into place; by the time you’re finished the assembly, you’ve got a completely tight, clear picture of exactly what’s been in front of you all along.  Clearly taking inspiration from the life he’s led, “The Road Less Traveled” still comes across as a sincerely personal track, and more importantly I think, it still has a massive element of hopefulness in the songwriting that makes us really root for this song and the story of its main character to work out.  Guitars come out sounding great in the performance and production, as do the vocals and harmonies; “The Road Less Traveled” might have a slight Country-edge to it, but I think the comforting way that Cagle sings this melody – especially in the chorus – works really well and has true appeal.

I should also point out that Jonathon Brannon has received numerous awards for his songwriting.  To state for the record, I’ve received none…I’m just a guy that listens to a heck of a lot of music; a bit hard to even feel like I’ve got a credible opinion here on these tunes…just tellin’ ya what I hear as best I can.

“Runaway” reminded me of sounds I seek out when I’m in the mood for something lighter like Toad The Wet Sprocket or Better Than Ezra.  Well…I say ‘lighter’ – but much like those two bands, “Runaway” seems light on the surface until you absorb the words, which run much deeper.  A good cut to put as the second track…I think it’s musically less straight-ahead than the opening tune and overall, even though it’s much shorter, seems like it’ll last longer over time.  Between the clever flow in both the music and vocals, “Runaway” feels like one good long hook; still great separation between its verses and choruses, but a similar approach in the energy to both that really create a wonderful cohesion in this song.  Cagle lifts this track up even further towards the end, adding additional rasp & edge to his vocals that add further punctuation to a song that’s proved itself plenty already by that point.  Point being, you get to hear some of the range, power and tone he can put into a tune on “Runaway” – and between that and his performance on “Tonight” you get a sense of the widespread sound he takes on vocally.  “Tonight” has some of my favorite lyrics along with some that I wasn’t as stoked on – but I think what really makes that more gentle ballad work is really Cagle’s understanding and connection to those lyrics, singing it like he had written each word himself.  That’s a real credit to both Brannon for his writing and its ability to translate to a performance and a credit to Cagle for making that interpretation sound so heartfelt, honest and real that you know he understood Brannon’s every intention for this song.  As a result, the pace & movement of “Tonight” really sparkles & shines…some of the most beautiful harmonies on the record are found within this tune and the simple guitar melody filling the atmosphere is the exact stuff a truly classic-style ballad requires.

But c’mon…if it’s a real ballad you’re looking for…everyone knows it HAS to have a piano right?  Alright, alright…maybe that’s not exactly the defining standard – but it does happen to be one of my personal favorite things to hear in a slow-tune.  My ears could be biased here, but I felt like “Show Who You Are” was without a doubt one of the strongest songs on the album.  I think that Brannon gets the most out of each note & chord from the piano melody, providing a jaw-dropping, crystalline & stunning atmosphere for Cagle to also reveal one of his own best performances through the vocals.  Lyrically…I can get behind this one more than some of the others by comparison; I think the focus is really clearly expressed in the thoughts, feelings and emotions of “Show Who You Are.”  Ultimately, it’s a call for unity in our shared humanity…Cagle expresses these sentiments beautifully…he gets these words to a place where they make their intended impact through the powerful performance he puts in here.  Piano approved!

You know…I felt like I was sure about everything about “Vulnerable” with the exception of the word itself when it came up in the song.  I kept coming back to thinking it might be too far of a reach to build an entire song around such an awkward word…but it’s admittedly loaded with syllables and I can understand its appeal.  I suppose it’s one of those things…you want clarity in the vocals without sounding like you have to take the time to enunciate something correctly…and I’m not completely convinced it’s one of those words you can include without having that come into play.  The rest of it worked without question for me…felt like the guitars were great…loved how you can hear the occasional knock on the body of the instrument as it’s played…leads to a real authenticity of the moment that feels real.  Great musicianship and very clean playing, great chords…and I’ll fully readily admit that I think Cagle does a terrific job with the word “Vulnerable” when it comes up, it’s not him, it’s the word itself that kept me less sure of this one than the rest…but I still can’t deny it DOES have its own hook and appeal through its inclusion.  Suppose it grew on me the more I repeated this tune – but really for me, I think it was verse that managed to outshine the chorus…that can be cool too on occasion.

I don’t know that I can quite put my finger on it…but a song like “Fire” to me, is an example of why this guy would be winning the hardware when it comes to songwriting awards.  Everything about this song sounds seriously inspired, innocent and honest to me – an absolutely beautiful & uplifting song that really sparks the energy of the second-half of The Road Less Traveled in a positive direction.  Great imagery in these words and Brannon’s really put in some powerful lines on “Fire” – all once again brought vibrantly to life through one of Cagle’s most stunning performances.  For those looking for something like I was describing earlier on with the indie-reference to a more indirect lyric-style, you get a good mix of both worlds here and I felt like it worked really strongly for Brannon on “Fire.”  But c’mon people – from the rhythmic, bright melody in the guitars, to the gorgeous sentiment/subject of the lyrics, to the absolutely inspired sound and energy in Cagle’s delivery on “Fire” – everything you’ll hear from performance to production comes through blazing sunshine proudly in this sincere sweetness.

I felt somewhat the same about “Collide” as I did with “Runaway” earlier-on in the sense that I’m not sure it will be a cut that people will immediately latch onto, but that it certainly sounds like one of the tracks that will hold up the longest over repeat listens.  And don’t get me wrong…I don’t think that’s any indication of songwriting that ‘lacks’ anything…quite the opposite; “Collide” is thematically/lyrically heavier and that can generally be something that people don’t instantly respond to, but endlessly hold onto for the moments they need it most.  The guitars and subtle beat of “Collide” work magic musically and the entire tune really provides a whole new dimension to the writing of Brannon and insight into his capabilities as a songwriter.  Powerful emotions run deep in this song…I love how the words work in the chorus and the unique flow that the vocals take on with confidence.  Lots about “Collide” sounds ‘more involved’ somehow…whether that’s the combo of Brannon & Cagle or our connection to the atmosphere – it’s a meatier song that really has a lot to offer through its lyrics & bold expressions.

Conversely, “Light Up The Night” relies on space and a minimal melody through the music to make for another memorable highlight on The Road Less Traveled.  Brannon’s got a great way with writing inspiring & uplifting, unifying tunes that connect through their emotions and speak to our souls.  There are moments where I think word-selection can cost him slightly by choosing clunky/awkward sounding words like we’d heard previously with “Vulnerable” and using the word ‘stigma’ in “Light Up The Night.”  And here’s where I think songwriting…or writing in general really…gets trickier.  You WANT to be able to use unique descriptions, and you SHOULD.  That being said, I think atmosphere, mood & tone always need to be considered in their relationship to the sound & cadence in the words we use.  Sometimes including a word like ‘stigma’ ends up standing out for the wrong reasons…a jagged sounding word in a sea of surrounding melody and easier sounds to take-in.  Does that make sense?  Even changing it to ‘system’ would have added a smoothness and perhaps still been close enough to the meaning Brannon was looking for in the message…those are the kind of choices that sometimes assist a song in second-lives to come in live-performances or changes made to a newer-version; and sometimes those tiny differences can make all the difference in the world.  Because here’s my ultimate point – I think “Light Up The Night” is pretty much as perfect as perfect gets beyond the fact that there’s one weird word that sticks out every time the chorus passes through.  There’s a chance that it could just be me…but I’d honestly suspect that it’s not…we all kind of tend to hear things in the same way and I’d suspect that there’s a chance even Brannon himself debated whether or not that word ‘stigma’ was one that would work on “Light Up The Night.”  I’ll also say this…and I mean this sincerely – as hard of a time as I’ve given him over a single word here – this is also undoubtedly one of my favorites from The Road Less Traveled.

You can call it convenient or you can call it a songwriter spying a perfect opportunity…or maybe just plain ol’ honest sincerity & coincidence…whatever it might be, “Wonder Woman” comes gently through the speakers next on the album.  Chances are…from the sounds of it…I’d assume that “Wonder Woman” is written in tribute to his mom; that might be assuming a bit too much…it’s written in a way that leaves that open to interpretation, it could just as easily be about a wife or a loved-one I suppose.  To me there are just enough slight hints in the words that cue us in to the fact that it’s written from the perspective of an adult reflecting on life growing up as a child.  A heartfelt tune that broadcasts its true sincerity in an honestly sweet sound…you’ve gotta admire a track like this for what it is; tributes done in the right way can be a truly moving & beautiful thing, just like this is.

Common & shared experiences, themes, expressions, sentiments, thoughts and feelings…they’re commonly found between us all for a REASON…because we really all do share much of these between us all.  So while examining a song like “End Of The Tunnel,” built upon the familiarity of ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ that we’ve heard about many times before Brannon or Cagle were even born – the fact remains that it’s an idea that presents imagery we all connect with instantly, understand and respond to when we hear it.  What Brannon understands like all great songwriters do, is that there’s an accessibility in themes just as much as there is in the sound of what we hear in the music – just so happens he’s been able to accompany all those ideas in his words with beautiful instrumentation as well.  But it’s those common threads that we all share in knowing exactly what he’s expressing on a song like “End Of The Tunnel” that pull us all close when we listen to music and bond us together.  Regardless of the familiarity of the lyrics – the performances between Brannon and Cagle have lifted up each and every one of these tunes to that next-level the writing & effort deserved – and for what it’s worth, I think they’ve really ended on one of their best with “End Of The Tunnel.”  Really well mixed & structured with an impressive rise & fall to its dynamics, the chorus comes through shining brightly – you can practically close your own eyes and see the light they’re describing here at the album’s end…and it’s beautiful.

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