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Growing pains
Hotel Paper is Michelle Branchís melancholy break-up suite

The changing of the girly-pop guard began in late 2001, when Britney Spears got too raunchy for the charts and Pink transformed herself from trashy R&B diva to angst-ridden singer-songwriter du jour. Around the same time, Arizona singer-songwriter Michelle Branch made a precocious debut with The Spirit Room (Maverick), a catchy pop album by a teenage girl who never left home without her guitar and wouldnít be caught dead in a sexy schoolgirl uniform. Less than a year later, Avril Lavigne came along and left them all in the dust, but that didnít stop Michelle from landing three singles ó "All You Wanted," "Everywhere," and "Goodbye to You" ó in the Billboard Top 40. After the disc ran its course, she took a soulful lead-vocal turn on the Santana smash "The Game of Love" and won a Grammy.

These days, Michelle is 20 years old and showing no signs of slowing down: sheís about to wrap up an opening stint on the top-grossing Dixie Chicks arena tour, and her new Hotel Paper (Maverick) just spent a month in the Top 10. On the albumís moody first hit, "Are You Happy Now?", she takes a cue from Avril with a tribute to popís patron saint of angry young women: her Maverick labelmate, Alanis Morissette. "Could you look me in the eye/And tell me that youíre happy now?", she wails, her new-found bitterness a good match for her powerful voice. The trackís gnashing guitar riffs come courtesy of Janeís Addictionís Dave Navarro, who also played on Alanisís landmark "You Oughta Know."

Kicking off with "Are You Happy Now?" and crying itself to sleep 11 songs later on " íTil I Get Over You," Hotel Paper is a melancholy break-up suite that struggles to rise above the adult-alternative status quo. As the title implies, itís also a road album, one where the driver always obeys the speed limit and the lonesome ballads sometimes sound half-realized. Still, Michelle remains one of the most confident young singers in pop, and her melodies usually come to the rescue when her grooves and her lyrics falter. And though her voice will probably always be her biggest selling point, on Hotel Paper she handles the bulk of the songwriting and pulls her own weight on acoustic guitar, just as she has in the past. Most of her collaborators from The Spirit Room are back, including producer/songwriter/guitarist John Shanks and ace drummer Kenny Aronoff; Janeís/Alanis bassist Chris Chaney is also aboard for much of the disc. Thatís the core band on the pretty ballad "Tuesday Morning," a vivid look back on the heyday of a spoiled love affair: "Tuesday morning in the dark/We were finding out who we are." On the breezy "Find Your Way Back," the confrontational wrath of "Are You Happy Now?" gives way to the pangs of unrequited love.

With the help of Shanks, who cut his music-biz teeth working with Melissa Etheridge, Michelle does a good job of reconciling her roots-rock heart with her megapop ambitions. She duets with one of her role models, Sheryl Crow, on the acoustic-blues romp "Love Me like That," where the girls fire back at all their estranged lovers with some choice honky-tonk vocal harmonies. On the albumís pop highlight, "Breathe," she puts on her chirpiest voice and recycles the irresistible chorus from Madonnaís "Cherish" while Shanks assembles more than enough bells and whistles to make Radio Disney fans swoon.

In true megapop fashion, three other producers pitch in on Hotel Paper; unfortunately, none of them measures up to Shanks. The most surprising name in the credits is that of Josh Abraham, who helped Staind go Top 40 but has never before made a pop move this blatant. He dabbles in electronic minimalism on the piano ballad "One of These Days," which finds Michelle wallowing in the depths of heartbreak: "And I donít mind saying/A part of me left with you." Itís as dreary as Staindís "Itís Been Awhile," but at least it commands more attention than the low-key collaborations with producers Greg Wells and John Leventhal at the end of the disc.

Although Michelle shares Avrilís love for Alanis and megapop production, the crucial difference between the two ó Michelle is a classicist, Avril a modernist ó will probably serve her well in the long run. Meanwhile, her impact has not gone unnoticed in the industry: Shanks was called upon to produce the recent debut albums by girly-pop hopefuls Lucy Woodward and Lillix. With Michelleís closest rival, Vanessa Carlton, lying low for now, it makes sense that sheís striking back while the iron is still hot. But Hotel Paper sounds as if it could have benefitted from a little more rest and relaxation.

Issue Date: August 8 - 14, 2003
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