Branch deserves better, is capable of better.
You’d have to work hard to actively dislike Michelle Branch. Since 2001’s The Spirit Room planted her in the consciousness of pop music lovers everywhere she’s been hard to forget, even if she wasn’t always the most prolific artist in action. For all the goodwill she brings, there’s something that’s hard to latch onto. In many ways, she seems to have been designed by some eternal force specifically not to offend, with the voice of an angel and the face of singer-cum-model. Though that may make her the kind of artist that moms (and dads) can like right beside their kids, it doesn’t bode well for the rebellion factor. Maybe she doesn’t care but, listening to this latest effort, you kind of wish there was a little more dirt beneath her fingernails, a little more grit to the songs she sings.
Listeners would be forgiven for thinking it might come easy. Black Keys man Patrick Carney sat in the producer’s chair for this one. If Branch’s career has been fueled largely on likeability, Carney’s presence in recent times has been the antithesis of that. You sometimes have to work hard to like him or remember why you liked his band in the first place. In a sense, it should have been a match made in heaven: The black hat meeting the white hat, getting down to business and coming up with some art that was more gripping and real than either could have predicted.
Carney, though, is a soft touch. Yes, his name appears several times across the writing credits and yes, he plays a number of instruments, including bass and keys alongside the expected drums, he rarely adds much Branch couldn’t have stumbled upon in her home studio. That’s disappointing because she’s the kind of artist who occasionally needs to stretch beyond the expected and give us a dose of surprise. For all the talk that she’s broken new ground on this LP, the truth is that it’s more of what we’ve had in the past, a sweetness that’s deeply charming but, alternately, unsatisfying.
Yes, “Fault Line” has a wonderful hook, but what comes in between the choruses is mostly indistinguishable from anything else found on the record. Too often the keys and atmospheric trappings rob the material of excitement, allowing what might have been life-changing art to become sounds to fold your summer clothes by.
Then again, “Hopeless Romantic” has promise, threatening to get dark in places and allowing Branch to sing a little louder, a little clearer and with a little more conviction than she does elsewhere. That the track recalls Portishead doesn’t hurt either. There’s even some sexy cooing during the forced faux-New Wave of “Living a Lie,” which crashes hard in its early moments, becoming more of an experiment in sonic possibilities than a full-on composition. Meanwhile, “Carry Me Home” has promise as a radio track meant to invite memories of the late ‘90s.
Never mind that at a certain point it’s difficult to distinguish one track from the next. That would be easier to forgive on a more compact, more focused and more daring release. Instead, we find ourselves counting down the moments until it comes to a close and we can move on to the next new release. That’s a shame because Branch deserves better, is capable of better and could have worked up something for the ages with the right sparring partner.