o begins the second round of shemo. With a live disc in the works for Avril Lavigne and the next full length presumably in the works for Vanessa Carlton (taking bets now for how far this might fall outside of the Billboard Top 200), Michelle Branch checks in with the second blow of the first wave of next-generation female pop stars. And while the Backstreet Boys and Britney seem long gone from the pop music landscape, Branch still seems intent on fighting against what she regards as bad music. This time she aims even younger- skewering Hillary Duff in a recent Rolling Stone profile, leading her to ask “Oh, man, what is going on with music these days?”
If the success of Hotel Paper is any indication, however, the answer is: Michelle Branch. In the case of over marketed pop music, however, the focus must be on the music. Branch may claim or is being posited as an answer to the post-Britney question, but does the music hold up? Sort of.
Proper opener and first single “Are You Happy Now?” begins the album extremely promisingly. The song’s arrangement is nearly perfect with Branch slowly building the first verse into a bombastic chorus in which she asks the song’s title repeatedly. She works towards a furor, but just as quickly backs down, allowing the tension to build again throughout the second verse towards the next chorus- and once again the release is bliss. The key to the song, however, is the bridge’s guitar solo and sung rap which breaks up the monotony of the verse/chorus tension/release construct of the rest of the song.
“Find Your Way Back” tones down the energy slightly, allowing Branch to work a driving beat, rather than the stop start of “Are You Happy Now?” The chourses, however, contain exactly the same sort of energy that has made “Happy” a hit. The pristine production and well-delivered vocals make this an obvious choice for a future single.
When the energy dies down and Branch attempts naked introspection the album’s weaknesses become apparent, however. “Breathe” unsuccessfully mines the same sort of territory as Jewel’s “Standing Still”- the inevitable tension and release isn’t nearly as prescient- and the following song “Where Are You Now?” is a horrid example of Branch attempting to construct a track that features a hard-rock chorus in the manner of her musical idols, Led Zeppelin. Its almost approaches an avant atonality, but ends up sounding merely like an unfortunate mistake that should have been placed as a B-side. The only saving grace on the song are the vocal harmonies, which work well with one another, despite the cacophony that they attempt to drown out.
“Hotel Paper” fares somewhere in between failure and success. Branch’s vocals work well over the slightly country backing but the songwriting remains slight in comparison to the more well-produced front-end singles. As a template for the lyric writing on the album, the song works- reflecting the effects of writing lyrics almost constantly on the road, unable to rest in touring or her creative urges. It’s an interesting dichotomy that points towards what most second albums tend to be after the success of a debut- written in haste on hotel paper.
And, as an album, Hotel Paper treads the line between rushed brilliance and rushed dross. Much of the second half of the album is significantly less strong than the first half. As is the custom, putting the best produced and commercial tracks hides the fact that once again a complete album has not been turned in. Sure, there are moments of brilliance on the second half, but not sustained brilliance. But that doesn’t the answer the question of whether Branch’s music holds up under the weight of expectation. Branch answers her own question at the end of “’Til I Get Over You” by heaving a heavily audible sigh. Exactly.