Sometime between the release of her second album Hotel Paper in 2003 and the birth of her first child in 2005, Michelle Branch decided that she was tired of following the adult alternative career path that she'd been pursuing since her 2001 debut Spirit Room. She made no bones about her frustration, memorably posting on her website in late 2005 that she was "tired of sucking ***** to get my music heard" in the course of an inspired rant in which she vented her frustration at the music biz and everything that surrounded it. ...
Sometime between the release of her second album Hotel Paper in 2003 and the birth of her first child in 2005, Michelle Branch decided that she was tired of following the adult alternative career path that she'd been pursuing since her 2001 debut Spirit Room. She made no bones about her frustration, memorably posting on her website in late 2005 that she was "tired of sucking ***** to get my music heard" in the course of an inspired rant in which she vented her frustration at the music biz and everything that surrounded it. It was a ballsy move, but it did accomplish its desired effect of loosening the log-jam that stalled her career, particularly her plans to release a duet album with her friend and collaborator Jessica Harp under the name the Wreckers. Branch received resistance from her label, not just because she wanted to trade in her solo career for life in a group, but because the Wreckers were a country duo, and the shift in sound was as risky as the decision to be part of a band. At least it must have seemed that way on paper, but in practice, the duo's debut Stand Still, Look Pretty doesn't seem like a radical departure from Branch's solo albums. Sure, there are fiddles, acoustic guitars, and twangy Telecasters instead of layers of synths, but the album is pitched halfway between Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks, spiked with enough mainstream country-pop sheen to have it fit comfortably next to Miranda Lambert on the airwaves, but not enough to change the overall feeling that this record is a rootsy AAA record at its heart -- not far from Crow and the Dixie Chicks. It's a subtle change from Branch's previous work, but it does pay off significant dividends in a number of ways. First off all, Branch sounds at ease as part of a duo, and this truly is an equal partnership; in fact, Harp bears more songwriting credits than Branch does here, including two cuts that are hers alone ("Tennessee" and "Cigarettes"). Second, the clean-but-natural production is better suited to Branch's strengths than the stilted glossy sound of Hotel Paper, letting her songs stand on their own merits. And if she sounded a little tentative and fuzzy on her sophomore solo effort, she sounds focused here, thanks in large part to working with Harp, who helps draw out the earnest likeability that made Spirit Room appealing. It also helps that the Wreckers, in true country fashion, also cut a few professionally written tunes, such as the glittering opening cut "Leave the Pieces," that help keep this cohesive and entertaining. Not that there isn't a stumble or two along the way -- the anti-fame ruminations of the title track is too navel-gazing for country both in its topic and its moody dirge -- but the great majority of Stand Still, Look Pretty is tuneful, tastefully rootsy, and quite engaging country-pop. Based on this enjoyable album, if Branch decides to ditch her solo career to devote herself full-time to the Wreckers, it'd be a smart decision. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
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