We gave it a C
For Michelle Branch, whose 2001 debut established her as the most sedate and asexual of the new teen stars, there’ll be no getting her freak on. Her competent, colorless follow-up, Hotel Paper, opens with ”Are You Happy Now?” a surprising fit of power-chord pique that’s unsuccessfully Avril-esque. It’s the last ”rock” song on the CD, as Branch soon reverts to wistful, acoustic-guitar-driven form, aiming to be the next Shawn Colvin (or Buckingham/Nicks, in the Sheryl Crow duet ”Love Me Like That”). There are worse aspirations for a 19-year-old, but the inescapable girlishness in her voice heightens the unlived-in quality of hackneyed, lovelorn ballads like ”Desperately,” the least desperate-sounding song of 2003. In Branch’s attempts at sounding old before her time, every lyric and hook feels shopworn. If only she could find some grown-ups who’d force her to be an adolescent: Where ARE those Svengali-ish song docs in the Matrix when you need ’em?