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Song Reviews

Michelle Branch – “Sooner or Later”

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Michelle Branch’s first country single as a solo artist—after splitting with former BFF and The Wreckers cohort Jessica Harp—finds her doing her best impression of Michelle Branch.

There is little doubt in the mind of this observer that Branch’s conversion to country music is a commercially driven and carefully calculated occurrence, and “Sooner or Later” serves as a prime example of why that shift in direction was both a smart move and a necessary action.

Save for the overlay of some steel guitar and a few other trivial aesthetic tidbits, “Sooner or Later” could have appeared—in content, tone and sound—on any of Michelle Branch’s previous efforts, even dating back to 2001’s The Spirit Room (which spawned the ubiquitous “Everywhere”).

In a practical sense, the fact that we can trace the lineage of Branch’s journey from then to country isn’t at all surprising. After all, “Everything” was co-written and produced by none other than one John Shanks, the musical mastermind who has contributed to the success of Keith Urban, among other country stalwarts.

So the formula that produces Michelle Branch’s music has remained steady, while the terrain beneath her—both in the country music world and in the pop world—has shifted. As pop as “Sooner or Later” may be, there is no place for this type of acoustic-driven chick singer/songwriter on pop radio. That format has changed, and the bulk of its hits now incorporate elements of dance, electronic and/or hip hop into essentially every pop deviation. From Katy Perry to Pink to Lady Gaga–the females currently burning up the pop charts–the mainstream has changed considerably since 2001, leaving artists like Michelle Branch out in the cold.

Even the rhythmic foundation of Taylor Swift’s crossover mixes sound far different than this, utilizing more of a pulsing, pounding backdrop.

Branch’s music is loosely derived from the sound of 90s artists like Sheryl Crow. And there were significant country influences and leanings within much of that music, so in some ways this seems more like a reclassification than a significant musical reclamation.

And musically, it works. “Sooner or Later” is far from insipid, and she sings it with a sassy, subtle modern twang. She stands out as a female vocalist in this format, a unique, powerful voice that really knows how to sell a song. That’s something the format is lacking, and that’s why I believe this release will be a successful one.

In the end, however, it does little for Branch’s longevity. As opportunistic and well-timed as her conversion may be, it shields the fact that the reason she no longer has a place in the pop world is because she has never been able to—or has never chosen to—deviate from the sound with which she emerged. “Sooner or Later” demonstrates no musical progression over the music she released in 2001. And considering it’s been six years since her last solo effort, that is disturbing. While she may be able to strike as a hot iron in a format clamoring for anything interesting, if she’s unable to offer anything new to listeners in the future she will lose this audience’s attention just as she lost the last.

Jim Malec is a journalist whose work has appeared in American Songwriter, Country Weekly, Denver Westword and others. He is the founder of American Noise and former Managing Editor of The 9513.

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Song Reviews

John Rich – “Another You”

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For a guy who is supposed to be a genius songwriter, John Rich sure does seem to be running out of ideas. World/Girl, Do/You, Out/Down–these are the best rhymes a three-time ASCAP Songwriter of the Year can come up with? Maybe he spent all his good lines on “Raising McCain.”

Rich’s songwriting has never been accused of being especially sophisticated (actually, neither has Rich), but he has nonetheless demonstrated a high aptitude for clever turns of phrase and unique, original word choice. The first single from his upcoming solo project showcases none of that. “Another You” is a song that sounds like it was written when Rich was really, really bored. Because it’s really, really boring.

And really, really bad.

A million lyrical miles away from the interesting, edgy material that made up Horse of a Different Color (the album that resurrected Rich’s flagging career and launched him into Super Galactic stardom as one half of Big & Rich–we miss you Big Kenny), “Another You” is neither interesting nor edgy.

Rather, it is completely effortless–and I obviously don’t mean that as a compliment, but that Rich literally seems to have put zero effort into its composition, almost as if he pulled lines out of a paper bag, or spent a few minutes aimlessly rearranging those little magnets that stick on your refrigerator door. You know, the ones with words on them that can be made to say things like “Pick up milk” or “Take the trash out” or “Reviewing this song makes me want to punch myself in the face.”

Aside from the fact that this song gets its lyrical ass kicked by David Kersh’s 1997 hit “Another You” (written by Brad Paisley), Rich’s take on post-breakup regret plays as incomprehensibly unbelievable. Decidedly timid and conservative in both concept and execution, it’s just hard to take Rich, country’s drama king, seriously when he goes into sensitive crooner mode.

Part of that is because Rich is a poor singer, comparatively speaking–one with a tragically limited range (a fact underscored without Big Kenny’s vocal support to add color to an otherwise drab voice).

More than this, however, is that the whole package just seems entirely fake and designed purely for commercial effect. Cue the strings. Here comes the crescendoing chorus, followed by the emotional vocal run on the final line. The song has no heart and the recording has no teeth. John Rich doesn’t care about this song. He didn’t care about it enough to invest himself in its composition, and that comes through in his singing.

So why should we care about it, either?

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Song Reviews

The Band Perry – “Hip To My Heart”

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New Republic Nashville sibling trio The Band Perry sprightly treks through country’s bubbly side on “Hip To My Heart,” a rollicking up-tempo that pulses with energy. Lead singer Kimberly Perry’s voice is a pleasant surprise, invigorating, full of youthful vitality and accented by just a hint of raspy grit.

Likewise, “Hip To My Heart” is happy, playful and charming. Unfortunately, it also makes very little sense. Written by the trio and Brett Beavers, the song opens with the lines “I like your lips like I like my Coca-Cola yeah/Oh how it pops and fizzes/You like my shirt like I like it when you hold my hand/The way it fits, it’s got me feeling, feeling lucky.

Things don’t improve much from there, as we’re run through a maze of distracting and unnecessary wordplay.

Any fashion pundit will tell you that trying too hard to appear hip is the surest way to come off looking like a poser. With “Hip To My Heart,” The Band Perry demonstrates a cool sense of musical style, crafting a song full of fresh hooks and interesting turns. But lyrically, this runs way too far outside the lines, so adorned with quirks that it comes off as gaudy and unmatched.

“Hip To My Heart” may also be mainstream country’s first big-time single to draw directly from the influence of label-mate Taylor Swift: By and for an very young audience, The Band Perry is more at home in a suburban mall than a seedy honky tonk. Without Swift’s same narrative deftness, however, “Hip To My Heart” amounts to pure fizz.

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Song Reviews

Katy Perry ft. Kanye West – “E.T.” (“Futuristic Lover”)

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No pop artist approaches matters of sexuality with more playful spunk than Katy Perry, but there’s no taste of cherry Chapstick present on her latest single.

There’s no “shocking” girl-on-girl action, no cotton candy-laced teenage dreams and no flashing of peacocks in the California sunshine. “E.T.” is raw sexual energy set to a dark, thumping, rave-inspired beat. And although Perry’s voice has never sounded bigger or richer, that energy alone is not enough to save what is otherwise a thoroughly second-rate song that’s plagued by an ill-conceived concept.

In “E.T.,” Perry sings that she’s ready for abduction, as well as the relatively innocuous lines, “Infect me with your lovin’/Fill me with your poison.” But as the song pounds along to a beat ripped from Russian duo t.A.T.u.’s 2002 hit “All The Things She Said,” the constant string of outer space metaphors quickly grows tiresome.

The song never rises to more than that multitude of metaphors, seemingly searching for as many different ways as possible to say the same thing (though never actually saying anything). The cut’s just over three minutes long, but by the time the easily-predicted ambient breakdown rolls around at the 2:07 mark, you’re likely to feel as though you’ve been thoroughly bludgeoned by the song’s weird commitment to its equally weird theme.

Perry’s trio of super producers (Dr. Luke, Max Martin and Ammo) have rendered this entirely danceable, but some of the lyrics (which they co-wrote with Perry) are unintentionally hilarious. In addition to calling the object of her affection “an alien,” Perry refers to him as “supersonic” (he’s very fast?) and says she wants to be “filled by his poison” (I don’t even want to know).

The line “Fill me with your poison” isn’t delivered with the same knowing smirk as “I wanna see your peacock.” Perry sings it with a straight face, apparently oblivious not to the sexual meaning of it but to the pure awkwardness of its construction.

All of this results in a slice of audio genre fiction that never transcends its plot, and which seems almost too ridiculous to actually come from the hands of four people as talented as these.

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