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(updated 27 August 2013) "It's hard to imagine a more desirable item on a singer/songwriter's resume than growing up as the child of a travelling preacher." So it says on Diane Birch’s website and certainly that fact has had an influence on her debut album Bible Belt (S-Curve Records (USA) 8 07315 1 1012 3, 2009). The most significant thing about Birch, though, is her love of late-60s/early-70s folk, pop, and soul, which comes through loud and clear. The songs echo the likes of Carole King, Laura Nyro, Carly Simon, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Karen Carpenter, Dusty Springfield.
Somewhere along the way in the making of this CD, someone appears to have made the decision that the album shouldn't have a sound on it that couldn't have been made later than 1973, and what a stroke of genius that decision was. There was a risk of course that it could have sounded like a pastiche, but the presence of Southern soul legend Betty Wright in the production team ensures that the music is utterly authentic. More important still is that Birch truly seems to understand how the music works. It's only the lyrics which occasionally betray the 21st century genesis of the album.
"I got news today that you're gonna go see the Great Wall of China / I guess I'll see all the pictures on your page" she sings on "Ariel," the track where her admiration for Elton John's piano style is most evident. The song could easily have found a place on John's 1971 flawed masterpiece Tumbleweed Connection.
Fittingly, the first thing you hear on this album is Diane's voice, the opening track "Fire Escape" unusually starting with a sung verse supported only by early 60s style backing vocals, again sung by Diane. The track is completely stunning and sets the tone and standard for the whole album.
The album is not without knowing musical wit, "Choo Choo" opens with the familiar organ phrase from The Doors "Light My Fire" and there are numerous other little nods, musical and lyrical, to the era throughout the album's thirteen songs. “Honey, my heart has let you go, halleluiah/ I’ve got flowers in my hair,” Birch sings on Forgiveness – a song with roots in Memphis and dripping Stax-Volt horns.
As the daughter of a preacher, her childhood exposure to religion is also reflected by repeating motifs in her lyrics. “Because my dad was a preacher, the very religious upbringing I had made a huge impact on my life, in a very restraining and constricting way. I'm constantly talking about heaven, angels, and forgiveness. I'm hugely inspired by church hymns -- their chord structures, their colors. It was a form of constraint for me as a child but now I see that it has fueled my creative fire." Birch explains.
You know you're dealing with something exceptional when whichever track one is listening to at the time is your favourite track on the album – until the next one starts and that becomes your favourite. "Rewind" the longest track on the album is also the song with the most contemporary sound, and perhaps points the way ahead for this exceptional talent.
Birch has always seen herself as a pianist, yet her vocals are sublime. She keeps things simple, doesn't clutter the music with wails and runs. And as Carsten Knoch points out, "She never over-sings, never strains, never becomes shrill. Her phrasing's impeccable. Like other singers who don’t think of themselves as singers primarily, she knows how to shape her vocals with a self-effacing restraint that complements her music beautifully." The arrangements are always sympathetic to the songs, they never overwhelm, always serving as a backdrop and a frame to highlight the material and Diane's miraculous voice.
The female singer-songwriter is hardly a threatened species at the current time with many, many young artists pressing claims, some worthy, many not. The crucial word here is talent, and Diane Birch has it in spades. Bible Belt is the kind of debut album that the rest
can only dream about. A remarkably assured debut, and, by some distance, my album of the year for 2009.--Jamie Field nr Kington, England