Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Spirited Debut Marks The Emergence Of Michelle Branch With The Spirit Room

The Good: Good lyrics, themes, Decent music, Moments of voice
The Bad: Repetitive sound and feel throughout album, Ending, Short!
The Basics: Michelle Branch offers a solid debut that makes the listener reconsider young artists with her pop-rock guitar-driven The Spirit Room.

Michelle Branch impressed me from the first time I saw the video for "Everywhere." She did it quite simply, too; she was on screen playing her guitar. At the height of the Blonde Revolution, when pop music was characterized by the ramblings of blonde teen performers who were created by studios, there was a brunette artist strumming on her guitar. Still stinging from my investing in Britney Spears (I didn't think the single ". . . Baby One More Time" - reviewed here! - would go anywhere), I waited until I had heard the requisite three singles from Michelle Branch's debut, The Spirit Room before investing in this young talent. I've been glad ever since that I did.

With eleven tracks, clocking in at under forty-two and a half minutes, The Spirit Room is the emergence of a true, young artist. Michelle Branch wrote of co-wrote all eleven tracks and she plays guitar and keyboards on the songs as well. While she does not take any production credits on this album, it ought to be noted that several of the songs were produced by her co-writer John Shanks, so one might assume she was generally pleased with the way those tracks were produced as well. My point here is that this album seems to be very much the vision and direction of Michelle Branch.

And I have to say, I'm impressed. I don't think I've been so impressed by a debut since Fiona Apple's Tidal (reviewed here!) and that album took a while to grow on me. Michelle Branch leaps into the pop-rock market as a young woman with a guitar (and on a few tracks, a keyboard) and something to say. What makes The Spirit Room so worthwhile is the sense that Branch is not simply a young woman out to capitalize on her youthful looks to sell c.d.s and lip gloss, but rather she presents a startling mature musical vision that is enough to make one sit up and notice her.

While she started out with the very pop-rock track "Everywhere," which could have been used as an advertisement for virtually every teen drama on the WB, The Spirit Room is generally more mature than that. Instead of just pining for the cute guy, Branch sings about loss ("Goodbye To You"), being in a bad relationship ("Sweet Misery") and finding someone who understands and clicks with you ("You Get Me"). She even sings about emotional infidelity (quite well) on "If Only She Knew" and it's worth noting that the album is mildly frontloaded (two of the three hits from the album are in the first three tracks), the real frontloading is the collaborative Branch; as the album progresses, the songs become more Michelle Branch's voice (she wrote - solo - four of the last five songs on the album).

Ironically, one of the flaws with the album is the way that it ends. Branch closes The Spirit Room with "Drop In The Ocean," a slow, ponderous track that has Branch echoing out her lines. While it might usually be a fine closer, the prior track, "Goodbye To You" knocks it out and is a perfect ending to the album. With the sad lines like "Of all the things I've believed in / I just want to get it over with [THAT'S THE line!] / Tears form behind my eyes / But I do not cry / Counting the days that pass me by . . . Goodbye to everything that I knew / You were the one I loved / The one thing that I tried to hold on to . . ." ("Goodbye To You") sung melodically and passionately with her guitar, the song is one of the best breakup songs ever. It's a shame she didn't close with it; it would have ended the album with real punch.

But it's not all teen angst and doom and gloom from The Spirit Room, far from it. The superlative track - one of the songs not released as a single - is the surprisingly playful "You Get Me." Branch opens with "So, I'm a little left of center / I'm a little out of tune / Some say I'm paranormal / I just bend their spoon . . ." ("You Get Me") to sing a song about how even eccentrics may find love. It's pretty wonderful and it's a refreshing change of pace in this divisive world. Branch offers the chance to express something that is fun, well-phrased and sung in a way that perfectly fits the lyrics. Even the little laugh at the beginning of the song fits the track wonderfully as she loosely invites the listener into her world.

And Branch has decent range. She's an alto who usually stays safely in her pitch, but she seems to have fun with it. It's sufficient for her debut and - fortunately - she does not succumb to the ridiculous trend of trying to sound nasal. Instead, she presents a rather genuine vocal image and the listener can actually hear HER voice (instead of production elements).

As well, Branch creates songs that are solidly pop-rock with melodies that are memorable. If you've listened to the radio since 2001, odds are you've heard either the upbeat "Everywhere" or the equally emblematic "All You Wanted." Both singles are adequate representations of the sound of the average track on The Spirit Room. Most of them have Branch playing guitar, her voice just a few decibels before the instrumentation.

So, in short, Michelle Branch rightfully bounds onto the musical stage as a genuine artist at a time when such are scarce. Not merely a performer, The Spirit Room is a strong debut that encourages those disappointed with youth and pop music to hang on and give both another chance. This one's worth it.

The best track is "You Get Me," the least inspired is the somewhat jumbled "Something To Sleep To" (though even that I've found myself humming).

For other solo female artists, please visit my reviews of:
Glowstars - Heather Nova
"Only Love (The Ballad Of Sleeping Beauty)" (single) - Sophie B. Hawkins
End Of The Summer - Dar Williams


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

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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