Whilst her recent London promo gig for this release at The Lexington was gremlin-ridden and overall underwhelming, Branch remains a shapely and engaging performer, long hair and voice pretty much intact. A key singer/songwriter to disenfranchised and outsider females in particular, Michelle has a lyrical gift that few can claim. Sweet and sour in almost equal measures her melodic songs stay with you and travel well, internationally.
She has been off the radar for too long and she knows it. Her onstage comments at the launch showed an almost desperate desire to be back in front of her fans, connecting and delivering these new songs. Personal relationship problems and traction are to blame. Of course. So picking up the pieces she meets The Black Keys drummer and It Happens. Spiritually a happy event and every good wish, sharing matters and truly manifests itself somewhat rarely. So now we turn to the playing and the songs in this collection.
Cards on table, I am no fan of The Black Keys. To me they always sound unconvincing and raggedy and they lack sophistication. That hasn’t stopped them garnering a keen following in this post-White Stripes musical world. It’s The Strypes’ linear punch I much prefer. Watching drummer Patrick Carney play slightly unnerves me. He seems to stab at the kit and make heavy work of maintaining a tempo, whereas Chris Layton – for example – makes the beats tumble out of his kit whilst looking as though he is doing very little! In fact the ensemble at The Lexington showcase didn’t settle and swing at all, despite having Beck and Killers members aboard – curious.
Best You Ever is an emphatic starter with a strong verse and chorus melody and brooding backing. But if ever a song cried out for a fat horn section and not weedy organ!! The words put the knife in, believe me. You’re Good treads a funkier path with a breathy vocal and a strangely 1981 New Wave style backdrop. Nice tune and a lyric close to vintage Cher – ‘everybody thinks you’re a dope, but I don’t’ style.
Fault Line is softly delivered over a pretty tune and is riddled with paranoia and doubt. Heartbreak Now has beautiful chiming arpeggio chording and a machine-like tempo. The strings work well though the backing is over-chilled. One of the best songs on this set and a lovely vocal. Hopeless Romantic the title track has stately pacing and another fine piece of singing. She sounds totally lost and striving over the swooping strings. The clattery sub-beat is annoying, take that off and add piano and you’d have a Number One.
Living A Lie starts like Devo, I kid you not. It is Kim Wilde meets Mothersbaugh! Knock Yourself Out is altogether gentler and more ethereal, horrible beats kept at bay and shimmering chording in the mix. The voice here is almost Hotel Paper-era. Temporary Feeling sounds like a Top Gun soundtrack outtake, intentional or not, self-doubt dominates the words. Once bitten, eh Michelle?
Carry Me Home is pretty enough, another chugging backdrop and a tale of vulnerability ; Not A Love Song is a title that invariably points to the opposite. Not here, the lyric is vinegary and spiteful. An airy melody can’t stop it being sour. Last Night has a strong tune and spirited vocal, almost nudging towards a Stevie Nicks haunting feel that Branch would do well to develop. Bad Side is surely a demo for Britney Spears?? or ought to be. Shadow is a mysterious mid-tempo ballad and City the closing cut is somewhat more eerie as Michelle sounds reflective.
The arrangements on this record seem stuck in the Eighties and don’t do the songs any favours. Branch is in good voice but sounds scared of life, commitment and even the past, which she cannot change and is not doomed to repeat, whatever her mind tells her. Some warmth and dynamic adventure might give her some forward motion and enhance her undoubted poetic gift. I guess this is the record Branch needed to make at this point, to clear the air and move on, just as the last Graham Nash record attempted.
Michelle Branch’s new studio album ‘Hopeless Romantic’ is out now on Verve Records.
To keep up with this artist, head to www.michellebranch.com