Proving that the trend of recording would-be country albums as some kind of credibility maneuver isn’t confined to indie acts (The Elected’s Sun Sun Sun, Cat Power’s The Greatest, and Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins’ Rabbit Fur Coat), along comes Michelle Branch, teaming up with her best friend Jessica Harp, to form The Wreckers, whose debut, Stand Still, Look Pretty, has already landed a few songs on One Tree Hill and Smallville and has scored a top 40 hit at country radio. While Lewis and Chan Marshall went for a decidedly retro-country sound for their albums, The Wreckers and producer John Leventhal are more interested in a contemporary sound. The result is an album that’s as “country” as Bon Jovi’s “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” or anything SheDaisy have ever released—which is to say barely, if at all.
This isn’t new territory for Leventhal—he produced Shawn Colvin’s mandolin driven “Sunny Came Home” and much of the recent work by his wife Rosanne Cash—and it isn’t a huge departure for Branch either. Though she’s affecting a bit of a drawl—and if there’s anything Branch needs less, it’s an affected vocal style—and there’s an occasional pedal steel or banjo mixed lightly into the electric guitars, much of Stand Still, Look Pretty could pass for a follow-up to the VH1 rock of her first album The Spirit Room. The problem with that, of course, is that The Spirit Room and its follow up, Hotel Paper, were little more than anonymous MOR, and throwing in a few country instruments isn’t enough to make that sound any more distinctive.
The songwriting doesn’t do much to establish a clear identity for The Wreckers: “Tennessee” and “Cigarettes,” the two songs that Harp wrote on her own, have strong enough hooks, but they don’t hold up against “One More Girl,” a Patty Griffin cover. The remainder of the songs, co-written by Harp and Branch, are mired in strident imagery: “My, Oh My,” for instance, laments, “This parking lot used to be a field/I parked here in my Oldsmobile/Long before the Sonic and the Walgreens,” while “Way Back Home” never recovers from its opening, “Somewhere in the country/There’s a place/Where nobody knows your name.” Ultimately, it says more about the state of country radio than it does about The Wreckers that programmers seem to have taken this bait. Really, all there is to be said about The Wreckers is that, in playing country star dress-up, they’re reasonably pleasant and inoffensive, which puts them a bit ahead of a good deal of what’s currently popular in country music.