Stand Still Look Pretty
irst things first: Stand Still Look Pretty, wherein Michelle Branch reinvents herself as half of a femme country duo (with long-time friend Jessica Harp), is far better than you have any reason to expect. Up to this point, Branch’s primary musical gifts have been shown to be a half-decent knack for songwriting, and…well, that’s about it, though her vocal on Santana’s “The Game of Love” was better sunny pop singing than anything on her own albums. She easily exceeds any and everything she’s yet done with Stand Still, a surprisingly easy-going, assured, and fairly mature country record of the Dixie Chicks/Sheryl Crow school.
Lead single “Leave the Pieces,” which recently cracked the top 10 on Billboard’s Country Singles chart, is a wondrous start. Produced with shocking sensitivity and a light touch from reigning pop schlockmeister John Shanks (Ashlee Simpson, Crow’s recent watered-down vintage), this Jennifer Hanson/Billy Austin composition (one of only two out of these 12 songs that neither Branch nor Harp had a hand in writing) is warm, rootsy, and sung well because it’s written better—“There’s nothing you can do or say / You’re gonna break my heart anyway / So just leave the pieces when you go.” The remainder of Stand Still is produced by John Leventhal, an inspired choice: He’s worked on everything by Shawn Colvin (another antecedent for the Wreckers, especially in Harp’s fine songwriting) and Marc Cohn, along with producing Rodney Crowell and Crowell’s ex-wife Rosanne Cash, who just happens to be Leventhal’s current wife.
As you might expect from a resumé like that, Leventhal’s about tone and texture, favoring old woolens and sturdy cottons over flashier fabrics. That comes through on tracks such as “Hard to Love You,” with its politely-picked banjo reverberating through the verses, while the chorus swells over its banks. Harp and Branch sing in lovely harmony, like they’ve been doing it for years, and having Harp by her side seems to loosen Branch up. This is a solid, sturdy set of songs befitting their rootsy-but-not-exactly-honky-tonk settings, and accordingly, this is a refreshing debut record. Stand Still Look Pretty does plenty more than its title suggests.