The notion of Michelle Branch and Avril Lavigne as the anti-Britneys has been so overplayed that you'd think they were Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith. That's not fair - they point in more substantial directions than Spears et al., but their debut albums were, in truth, just different shades of professionally polished, fashion-conscious teen pop.
It also would be unfair to expect a breakthrough simply because Branch is heading out of teenhood. Still, it would have been nice if she'd, uh, branched out more on this second album. Hotel Paper is state-of-the-art pop, written by Branch (with producer John Shanks co-writing four songs). There's just no sense of an emerging artist at work, of anything that's specifically Branch's vision in play.
The most distinctive moments seem borrowed, such as "Love Me Like That" - a duet with Sheryl Crow that could be a Stevie Nicks song, right down to the Lindsey Buckingham-like guitar figure and gypsy reference.
The only thing Branch sings about is dating problems, and she does so in generic terms. Even in "Tuesday Morning," when she muses "we were finding out who we are," it's not an existential issue but a relationship one.
Branch has experienced a big, wide world out there in the last couple of years. Too bad it is not reflected in her songs.
Steve Hochman is a writer for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing Co. newspaper.
Hotel Paper (Maverick) **