Released on May 19, 2009 and in stores now, Diane Birch’s Bible Belt covers the musical gamut from jazz and R&B, to ’70s pop, Motown soul, and southern gospel, everything she listened/listens to. Oh but it does so much more than that.
There are songs from this debut album that stick with you, forever, haunting your dreams, waking you up in the middle of the night with its treacle temper, taking you back in time to your childhood all golden wistful edges while promising a golden future with emotional depth surrounded by an innate, wacky hopeful playfulness.
This Portland, OR singer/songwriter — by way of South Africa and Australia — can clearly sing any style and play any instrument with keys (thank you, Suzuki Method). From this strong base, she can also do practically anything with the mood, the lyrics, the notes given, take on any persona yet remain quintessentially, fashionably her.
Take #4, “Nothing But A Miracle,” a complete revelation and showcase of her multi-generational, forward-thinking talents. She wraps her velvety, slightly crackling voice around loose and tight melodic turns like a pro. And when it comes time to do a little free-form, scatty rap, she does it without any self-consciousness or fear of those empty spaces. It’s natural and real. She fills them in her own time, with a rapt, authentic fervor, the fervor of someone struggling with loneliness and desperation after a break-up: “I gotta get myself together | Gotta stop telling myself that I can do no better | Gotta go out and maybe start meeting some new people | I gotta go out and buy myself one of those little black dresses.” She wrote this!
#3, “Fools,” will stay stuck in your head like some hypnotic mantra. It’s one of those classic pop songs you can’t help but singing along to (the mark of greatness). Her vocal range is astounding in this retro-sounding track, catchy, uptempo, lingering, holding onto the last of her words as long as she can. It’s when she curvaceously drags out her words and turns vowels into entire concertos that the song soars, back into the vintage 1970s all stark piano, sharp horns and resonant choral voices. There’s a part in the middle of this song, the bridge if you will, when it’s just horns and her voices, intertwining, lifting, creating nostalgic music out of nothing. It’s one of Birch’s most-listened-to songs on MySpace, one of my favorites. I could listen to and hum along to it forever.
Every song on this CD is already a classic, capturing a woman’s changing moods without getting at all maudlin-emo, fake-cliché, or off-putting scary.
“Choo Choo” reminds me of the 18th century — all fancy powdered wigs and gowns — which Birch was so obsessed with growing up, mixed in with a lighthearted romp through good and evil doctrine and love.
“Rewind” draws from Birch’s strict religious background, a straightforward pop ballad with gospel roots about a heavy subject about regret in a relationship that mattered, in hindsight.
“Ariel,” I absolutely love for its relatable poetry and subject matter of sharing the deeply impersonal on social networks (“I’ve been cryin’ on the pillow where you lie | For the past, for the future and everything in between | Oh, does it hurt more to lose you or hurt more to love you baby? | Or does it hurt more to look at you on my screen?… Do you hear me callin’ Ariel? Am I a fool to think I know you well? Do we see the same stars Ariel? ’Cause sometimes baby those green eyes just don’t tell”).
“Valentino,” about a childhood muse resembling Mozart, goes quirky fast, featuring cyclical music/vocals, a real Maria Muldaur folkie throwback.
The bi-polar “Photograph” doesn’t even make any pretense of hiding its grand 1970s feedback. Check out the screeching organ climax after the rolling confessional thunder, with “little light, little light…” uniting gospel with rock.
“Fire Escape,” which started it all (about a friend’s father passing away), brings on the full funereal church effect with mournful voices in instrumental mode and that somber staccato percussive procession.
Diane Birch’s Bible Belt is an effortless, elaborate, evocative demo that’s taken everybody by surprise and promises to take down any and all competition — if any of us have any sense.
Review appeared in Examiner Jan. 18, 2011.