Monday, August 13, 2012

A Non-Blonde With Talent Continues To Push Into Pop Culture With Hotel Paper!

The Good: Excellent lyrics, Mostly good voice, Decent instrumentals, Nice arrangement
The Bad: One or two moments of voice, Short.
The Basics: In a spectacular sophomore album, Michelle Branch proves her debut success was not a fluke with Hotel Paper.

It took me a while to go out and buy Hotel Paper and now that I own Michelle Branch's second album, I find myself wondering what kept me from getting it. Unlike Branch's debut The Spirit Room, I was only familiar with two singles from Hotel Paper, "Are You Happy Now?" and "Breathe." I liked them, but it fell short of my three-single-to-buy rule. It's probably a stupid rule on my part, but it does keep me from blowing a lot of money on compact discs.

In all honesty, the only real problems with Hotel Paper are that: 1. It's short and 2. There are moments where the music - especially Branch's voice - just doesn't come together. For the short, it's a shame. Branch is an actual artist and the fact that she has a high caliber of work, yet only thirteen songs spanning less than forty-five minutes is disheartening. Presumably, the lack of extra songs was to make way for the enhanced c.d. extras. And, in the nitpicky department, the album is not vocally perfect. So, for example, I'm not wild about the "whoo-hoo-hoo-hoo's" in "Are You Happy Now?" The strained quality to her voice in "Empty Handed" also comes across as somewhat awkward.

But that's mostly nit-picking. The advantage Branch has over others in her age range (I refuse to call Britney and others her "peers," she's definitely a huge step away from them) is that she is not overproduced. So, when she sings awkwardly on the opening to "Empty Handed," we hear her voice and know it is Branch; she has not had her voice produced out of her music. That is refreshing.

But Hotel Paper is not consumed with flaws. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, Hotel Paper is a sophomore album that illustrates that The Spirit Room was not a fluke of talent. Michelle Branch is a talented lyricist and the tracks on Hotel Paper tend to be more sophisticated and less obvious than some of those on The Spirit Room. Gone is the sugary pop of "Everywhere" (Branch's first single on The Spirit Room, which was a good song for what it was) and instead, we have the angst of "'Til I Get Over You" and the longing of "Desperately." Branch's first album hinted at her ability to pull at the emotional heartstrings of listeners with "Goodbye To You," but Hotel Paper finds her vision far more realized.

And it is Michelle Branch's vision. Branch wrote or co-wrote every song on Hotel Paper and her sensibilities and talent shine through. Her second album contains more adult sentiments like these from "'Til I Get Over You:" "Every time I feel alone / I can blame it on you / And I do . . . You just bring me down / . . . / So I'm counting my tears 'til I get over you." There is loss, the consequence of losing one who the narrator has made their entire life. In fact, there's a wonderful, if dark, bookend to "Everywhere" (the first track on The Spirit Room) and "'Til I Get Over You," (the penultimate track on Hotel Paper).

Branch's music is pop, for the most part. Some of her tracks edge into rock and roll, like the wonderful duet with Sheryl Crow "Love Me Like That." Regardless of the genre, Branch plays her own instrument and that is worthy of a lot of praise, especially these days. Branch plays acoustic guitar on several tracks and she plays it well. I was, in fact, shocked by the liner notes to read that on the duet with Crow, neither Branch nor Crow is playing guitar. Talk about not using the talent in front of you! Both Crow and Branch are phenomenal on the guitar, so it is somewhat baffling that someone else did the guitar for their appearance together.

But Branch elevates the quality of pop by not having stupid lyrics, inane sampling or tired and predictable instrumentals. And by not overproducing her vocals, her talent actually shines through. She is the antidote to the stale garbage we too often hear when we turn on the radio. And it is especially intriguing to hear such sentiments from one so young. It would be impossible to take Britney Spears seriously if she were to sing, "Love is something you work at" as Branch does in "Love Me Like That," but Branch sells it. She has presence and makes us believe she knows how to make a relationship work. Just by her music. Just by her presence on the c.d.

Who will like Hotel Paper? Anyone sick of female solo artists on the popular scene who are overplayed, talentless hacks who got lucky or keep selling discs simply because they shake their breasts and butt. Anyone who wants a genuine pop-rock artist who is intelligent, musically capable and who . . . well, rocks. Who won't like Hotel Paper? Younger listeners won't get her depth, but they should probably listen to her anyway. It gives them something to grow into.

An album that shows clear growth thematically, Hotel Paper is worth your time and attention. The best tracks are "Where Are You Now?" and "'Til I Get Over You." The weakest link is the closing "It's You."

For other indie pop female artists, check out my reviews of:
One Cell In The Sea - A Fine Frenzy
The Crossing - Sophie B. Hawkins
Human Again - Ingrid Michaelson


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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