The Week In Pop

When Bygone Pop Stars Attempt An Indie Reboot

When Michelle Branch announced her comeback album at the outset of this year, the name was familiar, but so was the maneuver. Branch, a 33-year-old singer-songwriter from Arizona, is best known for a run of pop-rock hits off her 2001 major label debut The Spirit Room and its 2003 follow-up Hotel Paper and for “The Game Of Love,” her Grammy-winning collaboration with Santana. “Everywhere,” “All You Wanted,” “Goodbye To You,” “Are You Happy Now?” — these songs were inescapable at the dawn of the millennium (or at least they were everywhere… to me). Branch was a teenager at the time of her breakthrough, but in partnership with producer John Shanks, she wrote hooks like a seasoned pro. Her songs were bright, catchy, and charged with an undeniable energy. She lit up the radio for a couple years, and then she more or less disappeared.

Branch didn’t go away, exactly, but she stopped making hits. She dabbled in a side project called the Wreckers with country singer Jessica Harp. She recorded a duet with Chris Isaak. She wrote a song for The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants 2 and covered Radiohead’s “Creep” for the short-lived CBS series Stalker. All the while, her attempts to properly follow up Hotel Paper were continually thwarted, even as she remained under contract at Warner Brothers. One album, Everything Comes And Goes, was pared down to an EP; another, West Coast Time, never came out. Branch recently described the frustrating cycle to Paste:

There was too much money to be made off of me. It wasn’t personal. I had relationships with people who are still my friends [at Warner]. [We’d] rally the troops and get the right team and everyone would be excited and we would move forward and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, somebody bought Warner Brothers and this guy’s fired and this guy’s going and this new person’s coming in.” And as you’re waiting for a new president to come in, he’s gonna make his new hires and he’s going to do some firing. And every time a new person would come in, they’d be like, “Well, these recordings are old, maybe you should go in the studio, start writing again.”

To make matters worse, she separated from husband Teddy Landau in 2014. At that point, more than a decade into career limbo, you couldn’t have blamed Branch for getting out of music altogether. Instead, she is attempting a move that has become increasingly common among pop stars whose hits have long since dried up: the indie reboot.

Hopeless Romantic, Branch’s first album in 14 years, is out next week on Verve. It was co-written and produced by Patrick Carney, whom Branch began dating while working on the album. It sounds that way, too: Singles “Best You Ever” and “Hopeless Romantic” boast a cinematic bluesy undertow reminiscent of Carney’s band the Black Keys in their Danger Mouse era, albeit topped off by Branch’s recognizable voice and melodic instincts. And while those moodier songs haven’t become hits, Carney both helped her regain her confidence and generated loads of extra interest in a new Michelle Branch album. “This record wouldn’t have seen the light of day had he not been involved,” Branch told Billboard.

Branch is not the only former pop star attempting a return from the wilderness. This Friday, a week before Hopeless Romantic drops, Canadian singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado will release The Ride, her first album in five years. Like Branch, Furtado has been out of the spotlight for a while, not entirely of her own volition. And like Branch, she worked with a big-name indie rock producer on her new album. John Congleton, known for his work with St. Vincent, Baroness, and Cloud Nothings, helped Furtado bridge her pop tendencies with strains of post-punk and new wave — sometimes aggressively (“Cold Hard Truth”), sometimes calmly (“Phoenix”), and sometimes in a style that could almost pass for chillwave (“Pipe Dream”).

It’s the latest chapter in Furtado’s fascinating trajectory. After breaking through with the whimsical folk-pop tunes “I’m Like A Bird” and “Turn Off The Light” around the same time Branch was taking off, her 2003 sophomore effort Folklore was a relative flop. In the context of those records, 2006’s Timbaland-produced blockbuster Loose felt like a total metamorphosis, but the headfirst plunge into pop paid dividends, making Furtado one of the biggest stars in music. “Promiscuous” and “Say It Right” went to #1, as did “Give It To Me,” her 2007 victory lap single with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. Loose went platinum several times over and sold 12 million copies worldwide.

Promoting that album took such a toll on Furtado that she eventually recoiled from the spotlight. When she got back to recording, rather than try to re-create the success of Loose, she opted for a Spanish-language passion project called Mi Plan in 2009. When she finally set her sights back on the mainstream with 2012’s The Spirit Indestructible, the mainstream had moved on. The album sold only 6,000 copies in its first week, 36.5 times less than Loose’s 219,000 opening week figure.

If you’re going to be putting up indie numbers, you might as well make indie music. Working with a producer from outside the major-label machine creates an intriguing narrative hook. It safeguards against commercial disappointment. It offers the potential for a significant creative upside. But as Furtado is finding out, taking your sound underground is not a foolproof strategy for staging a comeback. The buzz surrounding The Ride is — well, to call it minimal would be to suggest there is any buzz at all.

Historically, the rewards for an indie reboot are fleeting. Vanessa Carlton, who hit it big with the piano-pop gem “A Thousand Miles” in 2002, signed to independent Dine Alone Records for 2015’s Liberman and worked with New Order/Suede/Doves producer Steve Osborne. When Mandy Moore veered toward folk-rock on 2009’s Amanda Leigh, she employed producer Mike Viola, who once fronted the rootsy alt-rock band Candy Butchers and has produced for Jenny Lewis and Ryan Adams (Moore’s husband at the time). Neither of those records was expected to be a commercial behemoth, but the hope was that they might imbue their artists with a new kind of credibility. It didn’t work for Moore, who hasn’t released an album since. Time will tell whether Carlton’s comeback fares any better — or Furtado’s, or Branch’s, or any former hit-maker trying to claw back from the brink of obscurity.

Ironically but maybe not surprisingly, the only indie reboot in recent memory to make much of a splash was by a pop star at the peak of her visibility. Maybe that’s because it’s best to establish yourself as a career artist when you still have a career, or maybe it’s because this particular re-imagination was too, um, imaginative to ignore. Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz, the audacious and bizarre 23-track color splatter cooked up by Cyrus and the Flaming Lips, may not have generated any hits, but it did exactly what an indie reboot is supposed to do. It helped cement Cyrus’ status as a musician capable of operating both inside and outside the mainstream. It proved she had an audience willing to follow her down any rabbit hole she and her drugs could envision. It affirmed that she was not beholden to the cultural currents that relegate figures like Branch and Furtado to the sidelines: independent in the truest sense.

CHART WATCH

More Life? More like More On-Demand Digital Streams! Drake’s great new “playlist” project is really an album — you can tell because it debuted at #1 this week on the Billboard 200 albums chart, in the process setting a new record for most streams in a week. All told, More Life tallied 505,000 equivalent units, the biggest first-week figure since Drake’s own Views dropped 11 months ago (although Ed Sheeran’s ÷, which slides to #2 this week on the strength of 119,000 units, had the year’s best pure sales debut with 322,000 two weeks ago).

Drake’s new set sold a very impressive 226,000 copies — which would be more than enough to top the chart on most weeks without the inevitable streaming bump — but the majority of its total came from a record 384.8 million song streams, translating to 257,000 equivalent units. Per Billboard, this is Drake’s seventh #1 album, tying him with Kanye West and Eminem for second-most #1 albums by a rapper, trailing Jay Z’s 13.

There will be more to say about Drake before this chart update is over. In the meantime, his former collaborator Rick Ross scores a #3 debut for Rather You Than Me with a respectable 106,000 units/70,000 sales — his best debut since Mastermind opened with 179,000 in sales in 2014. The Beauty And The Beast soundtrack drops to #4 despite nearly doubling last week’s 57,000 units with a 99,000-unit week. Then comes Depeche Mode’s Spirit, debuting at #5 with 64,000 units/62,000 sales. The bottom half of your top 10 comprises Bruno Mars, Moana, Future, the Weekend, and Migos.

OK, back to Drake: Billboard tells us he landed 24 tracks on the Hot 100 this week, including all 22 from More Life, breaking his own previous record of 20 simultaneous charting tracks. That also gives him 154 hits on the Hot 100 all-time, launching him past mentor Lil Wayne (135) for the most career Hot 100 hits by a solo artist. If he keeps this up, he may even pass the record for most Hot 100 hits by any artist, held by the Glee cast with 207.

So Drake comprises nearly a quarter of the Hot 100. That proportion extends to the top 10, where he nabs a #8 debut for “Passionfruit” (my personal More Life favorite) and a #9 start for “Portland.” The latter becomes the first top-10 single for Travis Scott and Quavo — though Quavo’s group Migos hit #1 earlier this year with the Lil Uzi Vert collab “Bad And Boujee,” which falls to #4 this week).

What else is popping in the top 10? Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” stays on top for a ninth nonconsecutive week, followed by Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” at #2 and Zayn and Taylor Swift’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker)” at #3. After “Bad And Boujee” comes the Weeknd and Daft Punk’s “I Feel It Coming” at #5 and Kodak Black’s “Tunnel Vision” at #6. Lastly, the Chainsmokers again have two tracks in the top 10: This time it’s the Coldplay collab “Something Just Like This” at #7 and “Paris” at #10. That makes 47 straight weeks with a Chainsmokers song in the top 10 — one behind Ace Of Base, four behind Drake, but still a whopping 22 weeks behind Katy Perry’s record 69-week run from 2010-11.

POP FIVE

The Chainsmokers – “The One”
The Chainsmokers have always had a deep respect for Kanye West. Their early single “Kanye” proclaimed, “I wanna be like Kanye,” and when I saw them at SXSW, they weaved his “Dark Fantasy” intro into their DJ set. And now they’ve chosen to open their album with a vocal flourish that reminds me of that “Can we get much higher?” sequence run through the Imogen Heap filter. It works pretty well, even if “The One” continues their streak of singles shamelessly evoking “Closer.”

Tim McGraw & Faith Hill – “Speak To A Girl”
Country’s reigning couple (with all due respect to Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood) deliver a power ballad about treating women with respect. It’s a nice message but not a particularly good song.

Little Mix – “No More Sad Songs” (Feat. Machine Gun Kelly)
So this is Machine Gun Kelly’s thing now, huh? Just hopping on a track with every hot new female pop artist in the game? In this case he’s guesting with Little Mix, Britain’s reigning girl group, whose “Shout To My Ex” was irresistible. “No More Sad Songs,” on the other hand, is highly resistible.

Brooke Candy – “Living Out Loud” (Feat. Sia)
Didn’t think I’d ever have any use for Brooke Candy until Sia bestowed her with this exquisite blast of Sia-core. That said, what Candy brings to the track is just as enjoyable as Sia’s contribution. Those monster Sia choruses have been wearing thin for me lately, so interchangeable in their inspirational hugeness, but Candy’s nonchalant delivery on the verses and the uptempo electronic production make Sia’s shtick feel new and alive again.

Austin Crute – “Ungodly”
Crute is the guy who played black Justin Bieber on Atlanta. On his debut single, he sounds closer to Bieber’s mentor Usher Raymond. It’s some impeccably produced and performed mainstream R&B of post-Drake, post-Weeknd vintage.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Harry Styles’ debut solo single, produced by Jeff Bhasker, is out next week. [YouTube]
  • Diplo says Major Lazer and Camila Cabello made “over 20 songs” together. [Billboard]
  • DJ Khaled will appear in Pitch Perfect 3. [Twitter]
  • Iggy Azalea told Beats 1 she scrapped an entire album in the wake of her break-up with Nick Young. [Idolator]
  • J. Cole announced a new documentary 4 Your Eyez Only coming to HBO next month. [EW]
  • Selena Gomez surprised an LA high school on behalf of the Step Up Foundation and Coach to spread a message of “empowerment and fulfilling one’s potential.” [Instagram]
  • Katy Perry teased another new song, “Witness,” on her Instagram Story. [Twitter]
  • Sia sang a song on Sesame Street. [YouTube]
  • Ed Sheeran helped homeless Liberian children and performed in a comedy sketch for Red Nose Day. [Rolling Stone]
  • Lady Gaga was a guest judge on the season premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race. [Pitchfork]
  • Fox is producing Atlantis, a musical inspired by Pharrell Williams’ childhood. [THR]
  • DNCE reportedly have a new song, “Kissing Strangers,” coming 4/14. [Josep]
  • Demi Lovato appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s recurring “Ew!” sketch. [YouTube]
  • Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys, and Pharrell Williams will honor artists at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction next week. [Rolling Stone]
  • John Legend surprised London commuters with an International Piano Day performance at St. Pancras Station. [Billboard]
  • Justin Timberlake will headline the U.S. Formula One Grand Prix at Austin’s Circuit Of The Americas in October. [Reuters]
  • Post Malone got a weird haircut. [SPIN]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME