Hopeless Romantic

Hopeless Romantic is an apt title for Michelle Branch’s first full-length collection of solo material in almost 14 years. You’d have to love music a whole lot to endure the industry wringer the way that Branch has.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Branch was only 17 when she released major label debut The Spirit Room. A trio of hit singles (including the appropriately ubiquitous “Everywhere”), double platinum sales, lots of award attention and a lengthy road stint ensued. Branch’s collaboration with rock legend Carlos Santana on multi-format hit “The Game of Love” seemed to cement her standing as a rising star.

But her sophomore release didn’t quite match her debut’s success. The reviews were good, but not rapturous. “Are You Happy Now?” was a Grammy-nominated hit, but subsequent singles were only modestly successful and the album sold about half of its predecessor. Branch’s ascent to the top of the industry seemed less assured.

After a brief detour to get married and have a baby, Branch returned with another Santana collaboration. While “I’m Feeling You” wasn’t the big hit their first team-up had been, it played well to Branch’s adult pop base and introduced fans and programmers to her next chapter: duo act The Wreckers.

The Wreckers teamed Branch with Jessica Harp, a long-time friend and back-up singer, for a project mixing country, rock and pop. “Leave the Pieces” was another Grammy-nominated hit, topping the country chart and enjoying significant pop cross-over success. Stand Still, Look Pretty fell just short of the platinum mark and the duo embarked on a long, well-received tour. Branch was willing to continue with The Wreckers, but Harp’s desire to pursue her solo career brought the project to a premature end, putting Branch at yet another career crossroads.

Branch elected to stick it out in Nashville and record a solo country album. But advance singles didn’t catch attention the way The Wreckers’ material had. After multiple release dates came and went, Everything Comes and Goes finally emerged, but whittled down to a six-song EP, not a full album. Tucked into an obscure year-end release window, the project disappeared quickly.

Branch next announced a return to her pop/rock roots and recorded West Coast Time for Warner Bros. Lead single “Loud Music” climbed into the Adult Pop Top 20, but didn’t get traction elsewhere. A number of songs popped up in a variety of contexts over a couple years, as, yet again, one announced release date came and went without the album appearing. An EP containing “Loud Music” and a few of Branch’s past hits served as the only part of the album ever to see release. With the album apparently in moth balls, Branch parted ways with Warner.

Branch kept active writing and performing, turning up on occasional TV spots or as a duet partner. A deal with Verve Records finally sees her release new music after a long drought.

Hopeless Romantic is a strong return for Branch. Its core is her classic pop/rock approach, heavily influenced by the California sound of the ’70s. Branch has wisely updated things with some light EDM/electro-pop touches, using them to add texture without overwhelming songs. Hints of her Nashville sojourn are apparent in some songs and a couple others work in some fun retro elements. As a whole, the album feels like a modern version of Michelle Branch, which is something of a victory.

The songs are uniformly good, working mostly in a mid-tempo format with engaging melodies and subtle hooks. Lyrical content examines the ups and downs of relationships. Given Branch’s snakebitten record label past, they could as easily be read as a career allegory as they could be about love or romance. A few cuts would fit in quite nicely on contemporary Adult Alternative and Adult Pop formats, especially the title track, “Not A Love Song” and rhythmic ballad “Knock Yourself Out.”

Is Hopeless Romantic bound for chart glory? While anything’s possible, the broader music audience has moved on from the singer. Long-time fans will be happy with this collection. But more than anything, the album’s existence is a testament to the power of persistence. Branch never stopped believing in her music and finally has been able to release a collection of which she can be justifiably proud.

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