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.