When 17 year-old Michelle Branch broke onto the scene two years ago, her timing could not have been better. In a pop music world that was dominated by tarted-up Barbie dolls like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, here was one young woman who gave us some incredibly catchy hits that had a little bit more substance than all that other mass-produced dreck. Face it: you were humming along to the infectious, ebullient choruses in "Everywhere" like everyone else. Branch, who either wrote or co-wrote every song on her debut album The Spirit Room, came across as the acoustic guitar-toting, doe-eyed girl next door. Here was a pretty young woman who actually knew how to play a musical instrument, write some fun little songs, and be someone else for young girls to look up to, instead of all those bleached blonde bimbettes. It wasn't the greatest music in the world, and there's a huge number of artists that young kids should be appreciating more, but Branch was nice enough, a refreshing change. Plus, she knew a good pop hook when she heard it (case in point: "All You Wanted", penned solely by Branch), and aided by some super-slick production by John Shanks, including some lush, comfy vocal overdubs, drum machine, and that safe-but-edgy alt-rock guitar, The Spirit Room was a mildly pleasant distraction from what was a very depressing 2001.
So how do you follow up an album that was as huge a hit as The Spirit Room? Branch's bouncy, guitar-based pop is riddled with cliches, so it's no surprise that her sophomore effort, Hotel Paper follows the same cycle we've seen all too many times before: an artist puts out the album they've worked all their lives to put out, tours like crazy, and then faces the extreme pressure of writing and recording a new record while still on the road. So now, instead of bursting with wide-eyed, adolescent emotion, Branch is a slightly more worldly 19 years of age, and her new album tries to be a bit mature. As a result, the songs are more introspective and morose, are about the lonely life on the road, and often sound just plain tired. It's like Branch is suffering from highway hypnosis; she seems to have been made sleepy by staring at the white lines on the highways, and most of the songs just lumber along at the same plodding, deliberate pace, boasting very few of the fun hooks that made her previous album so annoyingly likeable.
John Shanks is back at the helm, producing eight of Hotel Paper's 13 tracks, with three other producers (Greg Wells, Josh Abraham, and John Leventhal) handling the other five. Usually, multiple producers on an album is death, but on this record, it's Shanks himself who wrecks things the most with his unimaginative production. It's a slicker record than the debut, sometimes too much so. The first single, "Are You Happy Now", is laced with Jagged Little Pill influences, from the bitter lyrics ("Would you tell it to my face? / Or have I been erased?"), to Branch's over the top vocals, to Shanks's heavy use of drum machine and gritty guitar (provided by Dave Navarro). The problem is, it's not angry enough; it lacks real venom, and just comes off as a pale Alanis imitation. "Find Your Way Back" is better, more of what you'd expect from Branch, with its shimmering, Sundays-style melody and soaring chorus, while the lilting "Tuesday Morning" serves as a good follow-up ballad to The Spirit Room's "Goodbye to You".
Remarkably, the album hits an interesting peak later on. "Breathe" is the album's happiest, most upbeat song, and feels like a blast of fresh air. It's not really anything the least bit original, but Branch excels when she's playing ordinary, catchy guitar pop, and this song does the job very well. Meanwhile, "Where Are You Now" has Branch making the biggest musical strides, thanks to her collaboration with producer Greg Wells. Wells, who has done superb work in recent years on albums by Amy Correia and his wife Louise Goffin, takes Branch's rather ordinary tune, and pumps it full of light, summery, almost funky energy, and the result is a very nice change from the formula that Shanks seems to stick to too much. Then there's the enchanting title track; it's such a hackneyed songwriting idea to write a song about writing songs on the road ("I write mostly on hotel paper"), but Branch's sweetness works in her favor, and John Leventhal, who has worked with the likes of Shawn Colvin and Kelly Willis, teams up with longtime Yo La Tengo collaborator Roger Moutenot to add a tasteful country feel to the song.
Unfortunately, the rest of Hotel Paper doesn't measure up well at all. "'Til I Get over You" is a horribly boring ballad, and "Desperately" sounds anything but desperate. Shanks's country-ish production on "Love Me Like That" rings hollow, especially when compared to Leventhal's fine work, and Sheryl Crow, who always seems desperate to hang around people half her age, contributes some very unspectacular vocals to the track. The rest of the songs just blend into one another; they're not repulsive, they're just painfully ordinary. Branch has some real talent as a singer/songwriter, but as her disastrous collaboration with Santana a year ago proves, she still has some work to do. As Hotel Paper closes with the gentle "It's You" (produced by Leventhal again), Branch shows she's capable of some real sublime moments if she's with the right collaborator. Hotel Paper has a few pleasant moments, and at least it's considerably better than Liz Phair's terrible new album, but hopefully Branch is capable of something much better than this.