Michelle Branch, The Spirit Room (Maverick, 2001)
[originally posted 6Dec2001]
Michelle Branch’s debut album, Broken Bracelet, was as stunning a piece of pop artistry as one could find almost anywhere. It attracted Madonna’s ear, and Branch was signed to Maverick. Now comes her first major-label release, and it’s (predictably) a trade-off. That said, it’s still the first great major-label pop album since Midge Ure’s Breathe in 1996.
It’s a story you’ve heard a thousand times before and will hear a thousand times again: great indie artist signs to major label, falls under major label control, loses much of what made artist great in the first place. That does happen here, to some extent, but not as much as usual. The raw power of Broken Bracelet has been replaced by slick overproduction, but Branch is still writing her own lyrics, and the savage intelligence that shone so brightly previously is still in evidence here. Branch is also adaptable enough to make the overproduction work for her at times (e.g. “Something to Sleep To” or the spookily minimal “Drop in the Ocean”).
The album is not, however, without its flaws. The version of “Sweet Misery” here was utterly unnecessary, given the gorgeous jangly-pop version to be found on Broken Bracelet; while that’s the most extreme example, that can be said of every song reprised on The Spirit Room. And Branch is still quite obviously a young songwriter, and there’s the odd phrase that just doesn’t fit throughout (I hate to
pick on “Sweet Misery” again, especially given how catchy the original version of it is, but the chorus of the song is a perfect example). Still, the woman has a fine ear for what works, as evidenced by the forst single, “Everywhere,” which has certainly lived up to its name in radio play and TV/movie soundtracks.
Not as good as Broken Bracelet, but still a fine piece of work from an artist who, if there is any justice in the world, is going nowhere but up. ****