Part torch, here and there the blues, all soul; now add gospel and toss with the echo of Elton John’s piano work: clearly Diane Birch, who is all of these sounds, has her work cut out. She’s trying to break through, break out, become public, so to speak. She is among what must be thousands and thousands of fiercely talented female singer-songwriters, in their 20s and 30s, who are fighting for shelf space, digitally and tangibly, among the listening public. That is quite a task. It’s all uphill: it’s all tour, flog your talent, sell a few T-shirts here and there, and then tour, tour, and tour some more.
But talent is the critical word here and Diane Birch has it in abundance. She wears her many influences comfortably on her sleeve and yet manages to sound wholly like Diane Birch, a comparison others may one day aspire to if she gets a break or two along the way. And here’s hoping she will, if merit and Bible Belt have anything to do with it.
On her first CD, Bible Belt (S Records), she does both Motown and Memphis with great confidence and glee. She’s having a fine time, is Birch, playfully and sadly showing off her flexible and languorous church-house voice—a good demeanor to have on your first release because at her most confident and relaxed she sounds as if she has channeled a twinge of Dusty Springfield, which is no small compliment. Toss in Carole King, Norah Jones, and Kim Richey and you have some idea of how Birch sings, or is able to sing.
For range and versatility, Birch is every bit the equal of the county-inflected Tift Merritt, who does high-lonesome torch as well as anyone working right now.
How she sounds is a different matter, because the amalgam of these presences is unique, especially in the way gospel leeches from nearly every song on the album. Her piano-soaked tunes more often than not possess a gospel-torch effect, especially on the lovely and forlorn “Fire Escape” and on the aptly titled “Forgiveness,” which is about the freedom of moving on from dead love: “honey, my heart has let you go, halleluiah/ I’ve got flowers in my hair.” If “flowers in my hair” is a phrase straight from the 1960s, then that’s apt, too.
Laced with Stax-Volt horns, “Forgiveness,” the disc’s best song, is straight out of Memphis—see also, “Rise Up”—by way of the numerous small and large towns Birch lived in as a child of the military (crossing, as she says, the “lakes and mountains/ending up in Hollywood”). Good as “Forgiveness” is, everything else on Bible Belt is highly intelligent, hugely soulful and jammed with a jangly pop sensibility. “Valentino” bristles with a lighthearted infusion of pure happy pop. The opening of “Choo Choo” is a virtual sample of the organ work in The Doors “Light My Fire,” or in most any of The Doors’ organ work for that matter.
Avowedly an Elton John disciple, Birch’s piano work on “Ariel” could fit comfortably in an open slot on Tumbleweed Connection; in “Rewind,” on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road—which is to say it’s buoyant and forlorn and always emphatic.
That Birch can conjure so many comparisons on Bible Belt and yet remain defiantly distinct and wholly infectious is her greatest strength and her purest pleasure.
Bible Belt is the best pure singer-songwriter album I’ve heard this year.Powered by Sidelines