The Spirit Room

Michelle Branch

Maverick Records, 2001

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


The revolution is here.

Alright, alright, it's not Mozart or even Elvis, just a very listenable little pop-rock album from a fresh-faced young singer-songwriter. But timing is everything, and The Spirit Room is also riding the vanguard of the -- praise the Lord, it's here -- dumb-pop backlash. With the emergence of precocious new artists like Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton and Avril Lavigne, well-rounded talents capable of both writing and singing their own surprisingly mature songs, it's pretty much official -- Britney and the rest of you cleavage-flashing, ass-shaking, image-is-everything popstars, your fifteen minutes of fame are over.

There's much more here, however, beyond the simple fact that it's a nice change of pace in 2002 to see a young woman employing her musical talent rather than her shapely body to sell albums. Michelle Branch was not the winner of a lip-sync contest for midriff-baring mall rats. She arrived the old-fashioned way -- picked up a guitar at 14 and spent the next three years learning how to play and then writing song after song after song. By the time she was 17, she had put together enough solid material to attract label attention.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

It's easy to see why. While the obvious first and second singles - the driving, enormously catchy "Everywhere" and the more subdued but equally urgent "All You Wanted" -- are right up front, there isn't a clunker to be found on The Spirit Room. Every track demonstrates both a sophisticated grasp of pop-rock songwriting and a real gift for conveying the emotions behind teenage experiences we can all recognize. At seventeen, the highs were sky-high, the lows impossibly low, and everything felt vital and charged with a mysterious importance. Branch deftly captures it all -- the longing, the self-doubt, the passing obsessions generating a sometimes overwhelming range and depth of feeling, all of it new and exciting and a little bit scary.

In this effort it must be said that Branch is aided and abetted considerably by producer/multi-instrumentalist/frequent co-writer John Shanks. The assistance of a seasoned pro (he's produced Melissa Etheridge, Chris Isaak and Sheryl Crow, among others) gives these tracks a fullness and smooth finish that's frankly commercial without compromising with the integrity of the songs. While it would be intriguing to see how Branch might fare down the line with a more organic sound, free of loops and multi-tracked backing vocals, the approach here is a safe and smart one for an emerging artist.

Highlights beyond the two very strong singles include "You Set Me Free," a ringing, unself-consciously joyous love song; "If Only She Knew," a frank and sometimes bitter love triangle set to a funk-pop beat; and the latest single, the keening, desperately sincere "Goodbye To You." Closing strong, Branch and Shanks gradually build the final ballad "A Drop In The Ocean" into a swirling soundscape of passion -- not the cheap T & A stuff Britney and company are selling, but the real thing, the sensation of being swept away by your feelings for another person to the point where you nearly lose yourself in them. It's a exhilirating, ecstatic and sometimes frightening ride, and 17-year-old Michelle Branch captures its essence astonishingly well.

Four words, Michelle: welcome to the revolution.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2002 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Maverick Records, and is used for informational purposes only.