Diane Birch
Bible Belt


In order to cut a (very) long story short, I will spare readers the full detailed account of the way I arrived at the conclusion that Bible Belt was an album well worth my attention. Suffice it to say that the album - which, provided I'm not mistaken, is Diane Birch's first - was released in the USA about one year ago. Not a lot of reviews there, and not a lot of enthusiasm, either. So it's quite apparent that the last vestiges of hope are now placed on old Europe, where Bible Belt was released just a few months ago.

My US colleagues have stressed the obvious rétro nature of the album, mentioning well-known names such as Laura Nyro, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Karen Carpenter (Europe added Phoebe Snow to the list) being main influences. And while the names of Nyro and King are not at all out of place when discussing this album (even if things are not so simple and straightforward, as we'll see in a minute or two), those other names in the list can only show us that today's lists of "influences and similarities" are increasingly just the random outcome of an act of getting some names off a hat (this being especially true of Joni Mitchell, who was seldom mentioned till not too long ago, and who is now considered as "an influence" on whatever name is being discussed, however disparate her style).

The singer/songwriter framework proved to be so pervasive that some assumed the photo on the cover to be an obvious reference to the graphic style of historical works by famous names such as James Taylor or Linda Ronstadt. So I have to wonder if - provided we can see beyond the deer eyes, looking only at the formal, chromatic side of the picture - it's so difficult to consider the cover picture as a homage to the famous close-up of Nico featured on the cover of her album The Marble Index.

As already argued above, the names Laura Nyro and Carole King are not out of place here. Of the former, here we find the fire; the octave jumps in the vocals; those lively Soul and R&B moods; but definitely not her torment. While the latter is well represented by a certain economy of means in the piano style; some soul moves in the piano comping; also a certain "nasal" quality in some of the vocals, but it has to be stressed that this is just one of the many guises Diane Birch uses in her very versatile vocal approach.

However, just a few careful listening sessions will easily show that Nyro and King are not the whole story when it comes to Bible Belt. The well-mannered melodic ¾ with piano and soft orchestral strings in the background of Photograph will definitely remind listeners of Burt Bacharach. The syncopated country piano on Ariel sounds very closely related to Elton John, circa Tumbleweed Connection, just like its melodic vocal development. Choo Choo shows The Doors playing a song by Them. Forgiveness is a Stax groove performed by Booker T. & The MG's with some help by The Memphis Horns, the final result sounding quite a lot like an Otis Redding out-take. So?

Let's place the stylus at the start of the album's first track. Fire Escape will obviously remind one of Laura Nyro, but let's pay more attention: after a doo-wop start, the groove takes us straight to Muscle Shoals Studios, with a "Southern Soul" mood for strings and winds where one can almost hear Roger Hawkins's snare and toms, Spooner Oldham's Hammond organ, and the Gospel piano of... Aretha Franklin.

Bible Belt is an album of Soul Music. Those who mentioned Nyro and King were definitely not wrong, they just stopped too early, having those artists as their "point zero", failing to see the large background of which they were two (quite different) syntheses.

Bible Belt was produced by Steve Greenberg, "soul legend" Betty Wright, and Michael Mangini. Very clearly recorded, the album features quite dense arrangements with full-sounding background vocals, some of them featuring Betty Wright herself. Let's have a look at some of the featured musicians, starting with the two drums/bass pairs: Cindy Blackman/Adam Blackstone and Stanton Moore/George Porter. On guitar: Lenny Kaye. At the Hammond organ: Raymond Angry. Lotsa winds: Tom "Bones" Malone on trombone; Jim Hines on trumpet; Lou Marini and Lenny Pickett on saxophones. Diane Birch is featured on piano, on Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, sometimes at the organ (even a Farfisa!). Total duration: 55'.

What makes Bible Belt a different (and better) album, when compared to those "soul music" albums that have appeared in the last few years? A feeling of being authentic, for a start - which is something that definitely sounds paradoxical when referred to an album that faithfully reproduces vocal and instrumental phrases that were current about forty years ago! There are two things that in my opinion account for (a large part of) this gap in quality, the first being Birch's voice, which is absolutely fantastic, versatile, natural, not at all plastic, the perfect companion for her piano style; then there are the instrumental parts, quite inventive and complex, the likes of which I haven't heard in a long time; to put it in a nutshell: they are performed, and here "the lick is the hook", with instrumental passages revealing themselves in time (Bible Belt is the kind of album where something new appears long after the tenth listening session). Different listeners will like different things, of course, this writer regarding Cindy Blackman's grooves as some of the top points of the album: funky bass drum, agile toms in stereo, tambourine "as required", great versatility coupled to playing what's most appropriated; I'd really like if, besides "regular listeners", drummers would check it all out (provided there are any drummers left).

Bible Belt is an album that's at its best when listened to, rather then described. Here are just a few quick points.

After a doo-wop start, Fire Escape easily reminds one of Laura Nyro in a vocal dialogue with Labelle; beautiful orchestra, great vocal crescendo. Valentino is quite reminiscent of the more lively, happy-sounding Nyro; there's also a nice rapport between lead and background vocals. Fools has a syncopated piano groove that'll remind listeners of Carole King; there's a fine bass drum, a good chorus, and horns played with a mute. Nothing But A Miracle, with funky propulsion by bass and drums, sports a revealing title. Rewind sounds fresh, the piano phrase later reprised by woodwinds. Rise Up takes us all the way from King to Franklin; it's a lazy but groovy funky-soul, with a "call and response" gospel chorus. Photograph is a homage to Bacharach with a fantastic drums performance; then, the rhythm changes, and piano, tambourine, Hammond organ, a large gospel choir, and the orchestra take us out. This is the end of Side One.

Let's play Side Two. Don't Wait Up is a funky groove for piano and organ, about halfway between the 60s and the 70s, with nice vocals. Mirror Mirror is a fine mid-tempo song with two voices traveling parallel, as per its title; it has a fine bridge. Ariel is the aforementioned Tumbleweed Connection piano groove, with acoustic guitars and long passages on the toms traveling in stereo. Choo Choo really sounds like The Doors playing a song by Them, but the end is pure gospel. Forgiveness has a Stax groove (here the guitar is appropriately played by Diane Birch); there's a nice organ, fine background vocals, and a good-sounding acoustic bass. Magic View, for vocals, piano, and string quartet, is a good way to end the album, almost sounding like a "rest for the ears" after such dense climates; in a way, this track reminded me of Fiona Apple.

This got me thinking that, in a way, Bible Belt can be considered as valid a debut album as Fiona Apple's Tidal (1996) and Nellie McKay's Get Away From Me (2004). An excellent singer, Diane Birch is also a solid, versatile piano player (born in Michigan, Birch is now twenty-seven; she started playing piano twenty years ago). And the fact that her songs don't sound derivative speaks volumes about their quality.

What about tomorrow? Fiona Apple is without a doubt the one with the strongest "artistic personality", which is by definition highly unpredictable, as it's easily demonstrated by a career which maybe has been even more difficult than what the naked eye can see; sporting musical qualities that can make old things sound new, Fiona Apple has managed to overcome the problem concerning questions about the age of the styles she inhabits. Right from the start, Nellie McKay has placed her materials "in quotes", with affection and irony, which has made it possible for her to sidestep most problems concerning questions of "true" and "false" (which is a typical "theatrical" strategy). On first listen, Diane Birch sounds like an artist who likes discipline and has fewer problems than her abovementioned colleagues; it's really impossible to say if the future will take her to different, though highly stimulating, climates; or if, in the end, a comfortable routine will prevail.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2010

CloudsandClocks.net | May 20, 2010