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Michelle Branch | Spirit Room | review | alternative | rock | Lollipop

Michelle Branch

The Spirit Room (Maverick)
by Jamie Kiffel

In the world of glitz-pop, complete with pyrotechnic stages and enough costume changes to break a Barbie, it's done every day. Give a pretty, young girl a beat, a style and some lyrics about love, produce her to the hilt, and if the stars align with the consumer index, she'll become the next teen sensation. There is no illusion of artistic integrity. Buyers know exactly what they're getting: Formulated products to fit the latest demographic survey.

But for those who seek old-fashioned artists trying to make it on their own, there's alterna-pop, a sound not catchy enough to make the mainstream, less aided by monolithic production companies. The performer is presented as an individual striving to be heard on her own merit: An independent coffee house in a world of Starbucks. This is why Michelle Branch creates a problem. How does a 17-year-old from Sedona, Arizona, who is the antithesis of a pop princess - little make-up, no cleavage showing - produce an album that sounds like a radio program waiting to happen? The answer: She gets produced by John Shanks, who takes some measure of the talent she was born with, and then whips it into a frenzy of alterna-product. Careful reading reveals that only five of the eleven songs on the album are credited to Branch alone. The others all have Shanks' name on them. Notably, Shanks also produced BB Mak. You have probably already heard Branch's single, "Everywhere," on your favorite Top-40 station.

If you love that hooky, "alternative" sound, you won't be disappointed by the rest of this ultra-polished album. It's easy on the brain and full of market-tested pop formulas: A few minor chords here, intimate, luscious, Fiona Apple-esque vocals there; country chords for a down-home feeling; a Britney Spears carbon-copy tune in case the "alterna" thing doesn't work out. Branch could be your favorite Top-40 "alternative" male band with a sex change.

Yet there is still something about Michelle Branch... something that nagged at this reviewer enough to feel that her CD cannot be ignored, not even by a magazine that has called Cowboy Junkies "too mainstream." Branch sounds like perhaps, underneath all that production, there's a real performer with a true soul - but one who simply is too young to get her work out on the market without getting processed by "the machine" first.

Perhaps she'll be like Tori Amos, testing the overmarketed waters, then discarding her capitalist self for her heart's music a few years later. Her voice is sweet and rich, and her overpronunciation of words (tagging them with "uh") gives them an angsty, soul-tugging quality. Her lyrics are as simple as one could expect from a teen who hasn't yet lived through much real love ("I know she loves you and I can't interfere/ So I just have to sit back and watch my world disappear" on "If She Only Knew," one of the five songs on which Shanks isn't credited). Some have been unmistakably lifted straight from other artists ("Goodbye To You" not only sounds strikingly similar to Ozzy Osbourne's "Goodbye to Romance," but includes the lines "I used to get lost in your eyes" and "blinded by the light"). Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore the fact that this music is catchy. Branch has hit on something strong with her own "Sweet Misery," and "Everywhere" is undeniably a hit single on the rise.

The question is: Is this a genuinely talented artist who's simply conceded to the will of the music industry in exchange for having her voice heard... or is this just the sound of the machine churning out its own brand of "independent" singer-songwriters? In any case, it's likable stuff... but then again, so is Starbucks' Frappuccino, and it's made from a mix.


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