The word on Michelle Branch when her first album, The Spirit Room (Maverick), came out last summer was promising: 18-year-old Arizona chick writes her own songs, likes rock more than dance pop, and doesn’t need sex to sell her music. Her debut single, "Everywhere," was rock enough to live up to those expectations and pop enough to race up the charts. It starts off pretty glossy, with Michelle singing the word "you’re" down the scale in three syllables over a fancy trip-hop drum loop. Then the slashing electric guitars and gang-harmony vocals come in, and before long she’s belting out an unforgettable dream-pop chorus. It’s a flawless pop production and an auspicious chart debut.
More than six months later, Branch has another single in the Top 40 ("All You Wanted") and a platinum album under her belt. She’s also got competition: Vanessa Carlton, a 21-year-old Eastern Pennsylvania girl who shares Branch’s rock jones and pop instincts, not to mention her long brown hair. Carlton’s debut single, "A Thousand Miles," has already gone Top 10, and expectation is high for her first album, Be Not Nobody (A&M), which hit stores a couple weeks ago. It may be too early to call this a trend, but along with Grammy sensations Alicia Keys and Nelly Furtado, Branch and Carlton are making a strong case for musicianship in the face of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and their sexy dance routines.
There are plenty of monster choruses to match "Everywhere" on The Spirit Room, which Branch made with Melissa Etheridge/Chris Isaak producer John Shanks. "All You Wanted" is the emotional flipside to "Everywhere": slower and more angst-ridden than its predecessor, it cuts a little deeper but carries the same kind of pop kick. "If you want to/I can save you/I can take you away from here," she wails over a crumbling wall of guitars. She’s the girl next door with a big romantic streak, a lot of confidence, and a voice that commands attention without being showy.
At this point, Branch’s voice is more compelling than her pen: puppy love is pretty much her only subject, and she sometimes gets bogged down in self-pity. But she and Shanks are never at a loss for melody. The producer takes a funky left turn on "Here with Me," enlivening the catchiest sad song on the disc with a piano-driven Dr. Dre groove. Branch proves her guitar is more than a prop on "If Only She Knew," a playful jab at an ex-lover that borrows its gritty rock feel from Sheryl Crow. As much as she doesn’t want to be Britney, she’s not treading a much riskier path. But at least she’s ready to play with the big girls.
At 21, Carlton has a few crucial years of experience on Branch, and it shows on Be Not Nobody. Pretentious title and drab cover art aside, the disc is just as radio-friendly as The Spirit Room and a lot more colorful. A classically trained pianist who was waiting tables in Manhattan when she got signed, Carlton writes her own songs and does a straight cover of "Paint It Black." The album’s over-the-top symphonic rock vibe comes from producer Ron Fair, who recruited a crack LA session band and an entire orchestra for the occasion. Yeah, it’s a bit hoky, but it works.
Carlton’s piano is the focal point of "A Thousand Miles," a simple love song that sways to the same carefree rhythm as Branch’s "Everywhere." She’s already earned superficial comparisons with Tori Amos and Fiona Apple, but the nimble pop lick that opens the song sounds more like a Bruce Hornsby homage to me. As does the song’s mood: it’s a good-natured reverie, with none of the troubled soul searching that characterizes the work of Tori and Fiona. She occasionally evokes her piano-playing predecessors by raising her girlish voice to a howl, but she’s better off being herself.
And that’s something Carlton accomplishes more fully than most new artists, even with the heavy-handed orchestra shadowing her every move. She falls for a boy with his head in the clouds on "Ordinary Day," a fleet-fingered waltz built on a series of symphonic crescendos. Her piano turns honky-tonk on "Unsung," the disc’s big rock moment and a candid look inside the mind of the unsigned pop musician ("I wait for the words on the tip of your tongue/I’m only as good as the last one"). Love lets her down on the twin mantras "Sway" and "Prince," both of which forgo cheap pop thrills in favor of jumpy rhythms and cryptic wordplay. Like Branch, she’s a talented musician with decent taste and a good songwriting ear. Carlton also seems especially willing to put herself on the line in her songs, and that bodes well for her future.
Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton perform on Friday May 31 at the 92 PRO FM Birthday Bash Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, and on Saturday June 1 at the KISS 108 FM Concert at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield. Call (617) 931-2000.