Diane Birch—Bible Belt

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Diane BirchBible Belt (S-Curve Records, 2009)
Review by Hugh Lilly

Diane Birch moved around a lot when she was growing up—her father, a pastor, was born in South Africa, and the family moved from Michigan to Zimbabwe, and then Australia, when Birch was still in elementary school. At age 10, the family moved back to the US and settled in Portland, Oregon. They were deeply religious—to the point of not interacting with their secular neighbours; thus Birch grew up with little knowledge of pop culture or music outside of the classical repertoire—she learnt to play the piano by ear from age 7—save for church hymns and gospel songs.

It’s not in the least surprising, then, that her début album would be drenched in a gospel sound—Mahalia Jackson and Joan Armatrading loom over the record like spiritual aural Godmothers—but there are numerous other influences as well. Her first foray into popular culture—what she described as losing her “musical virginity”—was seeing the music video for “Bad” by Michael Jackson, which ignited in her “a sort of primal mystery” that cast its spell over her “like never before or since.”

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I stood there watching in complete disbelief,” she recalls. “I remember the feeling so vividly: ‘Was this a real human? What was he wearing? Was he the devil?’” She soon branched out and discovered The Carpenters, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles and, judging from the influences stamped on the record, soul music and the mid-’70s singer-songwriter Laurel Canyon sound—Joni Mitchell, James Taylor et al.

But perhaps one of her biggest influences would come from the opposite coast: Brooklyn-born songstress Carole King released her ground-breaking masterpiece Tapestry in March of 1971, after almost a decade of success writing for The Drifters, The Crystals and Dusty Springfield, among others, in the Brill Building. The rock critic Robert Christgau says about the landmark record that it “liberated [the female voice] from technical decorum”.

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On Tapestry, King re-tooled a song she had co-written for The Shirelles, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” and made a massive impact with the soulful, era-defining “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Too Late”. King’s influence on Birch is evident on nearly every track, from the opener “Fire Escape”—which builds from a basic, Dusty Springfield-esque vocal to a pleading, rhapsodic waltz soaked in Rhodes piano and lavish strings—to the closer, “Magic View,” a quiet piano ballad that sees Birch also incorporate the vocal stylings of Sia Furler, the Australian singer who rose to prominence through her work with Zero 7—and, to top it off, there’s a hint of the raspy curl of Beth Gibbons, the lead singer of Portishead.

Another white girl with bangs, and someone the blog Brooklyn Vegan once called an “indie sexpot,” Jenny Lewis took a break from her band Rilo Kiley in 2006 and joined up with The Watson Twins to make one of the best albums of the decade, Rabbit Fur Coat. Replete with a multi-tracked call-and-response gospel choir sound, and brushed with a touch of country, the record alternates between sad songs and songs that are genuinely—but beautifully—depressing. While Bible Belt doesn’t share the same morbid fascination lyrically, there are occasional echoes of Lewis’ style in Birch’s voice, and there are similar themes: Lewis’ religious upbringing figures prominently in songs such as “Born Secular” and “Rise Up With Fists!!”

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“Ariel,” the standout track on Bible Belt, echoes early Elton John both superficially in its single-word-man’s-name title—à la “Daniel” and “Levon”—and more tangibly in Birch’s double-tracked vocal delivery, which imitates John’s nuances—particularly at the end of phrases and in the bridge passage. But while it might be melodically reminiscent of early-’70s classics like “Tiny Dancer” and “My Father’s Gun,” the song’s lyrics have obviously been written with our digital age of instant, always-on social networking in mind: “I got news today that you’re go see the Great Wall of China / I guess I’ll see all the pictures on your page… / Does it hurt more to lose you or to love you baby / Or does it hurt more to look at you on my screen?”

Not every track is flawless, though: the Michelle Branch-esque “Mirror, Mirror” has an awful easy-listening commercial gloss to it, and will probably enter regular rotation on The Breeze radio station about a year from now. Elsewhere, “Photograph” is largely forgettable, but is redeemed by a brilliant gospel-inspired coda; “Valentino,” “Choo Choo” and the lead single “Rise Up” are all jaunty, brassy hymns that unfortunately lack a solid core but are enjoyable nonetheless. Birch’s gospel penchant is again indulged on the rambunctious “Don’t Wait Up,” and “Forgiveness” is a sublime horn-filled odyssey with a superb, pulsing bass line and jubilant backing chorus.

A number of critics have erroneously compared Birch to Stevie Nicks; while the Fleetwood Mac lead singer is arguably an aesthetic influence on Birch—not least her imitation of Nicks’ mid-’70s Charlie’s Angel’s-like hairdo—there’s no basis for a musical comparison. Birch has a significantly warmer, more rounded, soulful and upbeat tone to her voice; the only possible point of comparison would be Nicks circa 1973/74 on the album Buckingham Nicks—but even then, before she all but destroyed it with copious cocaine consumption, Nicks’ voice was enveloped in a pronounced Arizona twang.

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Birch wrote every track on the album, and the production—by the R ‘n’ B singer Betty Wright and the same engineer who propelled Joss Stone toward stardom—is second-to-none. This is particularly obvious on “Nothing But a Miracle” and “Fools”; in the background of the latter, the session musicians, including Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, tool about splendidly.

Bible Belt encompasses a wide range of influences and sounds—and, perhaps most remarkably for a début, showcases just as wide a range of soulful vocal styles. The record is an auspicious, praiseworthy first album from a massively talented young artist who deserves to be thrust head-on into the spotlight, however reluctantly she might greet it.

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Postscript: Birch’s stunning cover of “What is Love?”—the song which served as one of the theme tunes to the magnificent Will Ferrell vehicle A Night at the Roxbury—is well worth watching.

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