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  • John Fleming

Album Review: Michelle Branch - 'Hopeless Romantic'

What happens when you combine one of the early 21st century’s leading female pop singer/songwriters with one of the modern leaders of retro-infused blues/garage rock?

It turns out the answer is “Hopeless Romantic,” an album, which is rarely either of the things one might expect it to be, never finds middle ground, and is an exciting voyage into deep left field.

Michelle Branch was not yet 20-years-old when her last studio release, “Hotel Paper,” made a dent on pop radio in 2003. Its two singles, the Alanis Morissette-like, “Are You Happy Now?” and “Breathe,” were both hits. They weren’t necessarily enormous hits, but large enough that one would expect an immediate follow-up, especially from a musician so young.

But instead, Branch jumped into country with the duo, The Wreckers, best known for their 2006 pop-rock-country smash, “Leave the Pieces,” And then she did some soundtrack work and recorded some EPs, but has not released a full-fledged solo album.

And now, at 33, Branch is in a sweet spot where she is old enough to know what kind of album she wants to make and young enough that what she produces does not come across as an insincere imitation. For “Hopeless Romantic,” she teamed up with boyfriend Patrick Carney, best known as the drummer for the Black Keys. The album is about one-part Michelle Branch’s earlier solo work, two parts latter-day Black Keys and about 20 parts other influences altogether.

And it works.

The album’s lead single, the title track, “Hopeless Romantic,” is a sleek bit of pop-rock more hearkening to Ellie Goulding than anything listeners may imagine when hearing the name Michelle Branch. Several of the other songs, such as “Fault Line” or “Bad Side,” invite comparisons to Goulding.

Frequently on the album, Branch sounds more like she is the frontwoman for an electronic-infused pop band rather than a solo artist. And this is a good thing, because the songs that she and Carney wrote hold up on their own.

Somewhat ironically, the album’s weakest track, “Knock Yourself Out,” is the song which sounds the most like what I expected to hear, mellow, slightly country-esque pop. It’s not a bad song, per se, but it lacks the atmosphere which serves “Hopeless Romantic” as a complete product.

Branch’s solo discography sounds, in retrospect, like it was recorded in reverse. Lyrical themes about wasting one’s youth in a failed relationship aside, “Hopeless Romantic” sounds like a debut album far more than “The Spirit Room.”

Branch’s initial appeal came from her ability to, as a teenager, sound like a sophisticated, adult-oriented pop artist. She never had a youth phase to her music. She emerged around the same time as Norah Jones and Vanessa Carlton, seemingly as the antidote to Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera, who were consciously marketed as young singers, with the youth taking precedent over the actual singing.

“Hopeless Romantic” is a serious album that does not take itself too seriously. It is the kind of LP which probably isn’t going to be a smash with teenage audiences. But for those of us who were teens when Michelle Branch first came around, it is a dose of rock and roll cool from the last person many of us ever expected.

The album runs together in pieces, but as a whole. And it genuinely jams.

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