When choreographed teen pop began to fizzle a couple of years ago, Michelle Branch seemed poised to become one of the more authentic teen idols ready to step in for Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera. Like her peers Vanessa Carlton and Avril Lavigne, the still-teenage Branch writes her own songs and plays catchy, mostly generic sounding pop-rock songs just emotional enough for adolescent girls to relate to without resorting to the phony melodramatics of an Aguilera ballad. At this small show (warming up for an arena stint opening for the Dixie Chicks this summer), Branch previewed material from her June release “Hotel Paper” (Maverick), with hints in her songs that she may be a emerging as a viable artist.
Branch’s voice is her strongest asset, and she’s adept at finding its strengths whether she’s playing guitar or roaming the front of the stage. Though comparisons to Jewel are warranted, Branch has more in common with Shania Twain; a hint of a twang occasionally makes its way into even her poppiest songs, and her stage demeanor is sexy without being overtly sexual.
With some of her new material, it sounds like Branch is trying to cross over to more adult-themed sensibilities and sentiments. She got one step closer in her encore: first, with a strong, solo-acoustic turn, and then an invitation to her band to strip the sound down and add mandolin and accordion accompaniment on her Santana collaboration, “Game of Love,” and the new song “Hotel Paper.” With the ready-for-radio trappings of most of her arrangements gone, Branch still seemed comfortable and confident — the signs of an emerging artist ready to continue her evolution.
Michelle Branch plays at Madison Square Garden in New York June 20 and 21, opening for the Dixie Chicks.