Anyone who is described as a cross between Phoebe Snow and Laura Nyro is always going to be of interest to me but before one complete run through of “Bible Belt” it is clear that Diane Birch is far more than just that. What we have here is the complete soul blues gospel crossover musician, lyricist and vocalist and with the typically varied and surprising background that seems to be a pre requisite for such talent.
Born in Michigan in 1983 to Seventh Day Adventist parents Birch was not only banned from listening to pop music as it was deemed sinful but also taken by her parents to the remotest parts of Zimbabwe and South Africa before she had even reached a double figured age. Not an easy start to life I should imagine. When she was eleven the family settled in Portland and Birch began a clandestine affair with pop music. By the time she reached her teens she had rebelled entirely and had become a Goth with a love of The Cure, Bauhaus and the Sisters of Mercy to name but three. As soon as school was completed she ran away to Los Angeles got any job she could singing and playing piano in hotels and bars and even managed to be noticed by Prince who invited her to his home to write songs. Birch was one of the generation of musicians helped by the original MySpace concept and the songs posted on there led to her being offered her record deal. By this time she had relocated again, this time to London but the record deal from S-Curve saw her return to America and New York where she still resides.
“Bible Belt” starts with some good old time gospel feel with the almost unaccompanied vocal beginning to opening track ‘Fire Escape’. The reason for the Laura Nyro and Phoebe Snow comparisons are immediate and the song builds up to a great ending. Features some great use of horns and benefits from a really sharp drum sound. It is a faultless start to the album and I would guess most listeners will be hooked on Birch’s voice before the track ends. Second track ‘Valentino’ tells the story of the imaginary friend she created for herself during the lonely childhood years in Africa and is poppier, jazzier and quirky but no less effective. With its staccato riff and feel good uptempo melody it will bring a tapping toe and a smile to even the hardest of faces. ‘Fools’ has a great soul feel and is very radio friendly with a good hook. Once again Laura Nyro comes to mind and the horns and gentle bridge with its piano under the vocal add to the class of the track and make it one of many highlights. ‘Nothing But A Miracle’ could almost be a tribute to Nyro but Birch’s great soulful delivery make it all her own. ‘Rewind’ is more commercial and has a great chorus which will stay in the head for a long time after hearing it. It is possibly my favourite from the album and despite the radio friendly melody it features an extended musical break with an impressive piano solo and some great driving drums. ‘Rise Up’ is lighter and poppier with another quirky beat and as with so many tracks here builds up to a nice crescendo. ‘Photograph’ has a slower old time feel about it though to begin with. Whilst it is far from the best track on here the nice uptempo ending saves it from being ordinary.
‘Don’t Wait Up’ takes us back to the better uptempo type of song and is vaguely familiar to something but I have to admit that I can’t think what. Of course it may just be that Birch has managed to create a feel of old time classics on brand new material. I can imagine many of the songs on offer here being covered by other artists for many years to come. ‘Mirror Mirror’ continues with the great soul feel and as with a few earlier tracks has a great radio friendly hook that should ensure longevity of radio play. ‘Ariel’ vies for the award of the best song on the album with its beautiful melody and great lyric. It puts me in mind of Carole King in both structure and delivery. ‘Choo Choo’ is another jazzier track. It is probably the fastest on album and has an almost Motown feel. It also has some good funky guitar going on underneath the melody. ‘Forgiveness’ is a very gospel and religious sounding track with an extremely soulful heartfelt vocal and some more great horn work. It is nicely extended and is a very classy composition superbly delivered. The album ends as promisingly as it began with ‘Magic View’, a quiet simple track featuring only piano and vocal from Birch over a beatifully understated string arrangement.
The cleverly titled “Bible Belt” features thirteen totally self penned tracks from Diane Birch which manage to sound new exciting and fresh whilst at the same time being steeped in true old fashioned soul and blues feelings and harmonies. Throw in a smattering of Gospel and an undercurrent of rebellion and what you have is one of the better debut albums from an artist who has the abilty and range of style to appeal to anyone with a love of good music. It is easy to recommend.
© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM October 2011