Like Rob Thomas before her, Michelle Branch got a shot of cred last year when she turned a Santana song into something better than it had any right to be. But "Game of Love" is no "Smooth," and Branch, a 19-year-old who wants nothing to do with her generation, isn't sure what she wants to do with her newfound respectability.
On her second album, Hotel Paper, she tries on several personas: alt-rock hell-raiser ("Are You Happy Now?"), jaded grown-up ("Find Your Way Back"), classic rocker ("Love Me Like That," with ubiquitous duet-partner Sheryl Crow), and lonely road trouper ("Hotel Paper"). Yet none are so convincing as the songs on which she acts her age. The hurt little girl of "Tuesday Morning" and "One of These Days" is about as authentic as Branch gets, and if she doesn't sound as pained as you'd expect, at least she sounds good going through the motions. That's what separates Branch from her peers: Unlike, say, Vanessa Carlton or Avril Lavigne, Branch -- who wrote or co-wrote every song on Hotel Paper -- is about more than just the single radio moment. Her aspirations tilt toward a career as an album artist. Now, if she can only decide who she wants that artist to be.