Diane Birch
Speak A Little Louder


What a surprise!, I find Diane Birch's new album waiting for me in my mailbox (I have to admit that, four years having passed since the release of her debut album Bible Belt, I had almost abandoned all hope to listen to a full-length release featuring new material). Another surprise, I see this is the Deluxe Edition of her new album: sixteen tracks, not eleven, as per the regular release (hooray!). Yet another surprise, the CD doesn't work: maybe it's the TOC, maybe it's a joke by a new kind of copy-protection device (my copy coming all the way from the United States of America), my (quite recent) CD player doesn't seem to be able to upload it; no problems when it comes to my (old) computer. So I rip the files on my computer, I burn a CD-R, and I proceed to play it on my CD player: it works (phew...). Yet another surprise: Speak A Little Louder doesn't resemble much-loved Bible Belt at all (this is not a real surprise, and definitely not a problem for me), but my first impression is like I'm listening to something I can't make heads or tails of, while I seem to detect some very unpleasant aromas: "Birch Goes Disco"?

Let's have a look at the close of my review of Birch's previous album, where - engaging myself in an (impossible) exercise in futurology - I proceeded to compare Diane Birch to Fiona Apple and Nellie McKay (and what happened to her?): "What about tomorrow? (...) 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."

Let's not forget than in December, 2010 Diane Birch released an EP - available as a digital download only in MP3 format - titled The Velveteen Age. A bizarre work at first sight, Birch performing covers of songs originally performed by groups such as Sisters Of Mercy, Siouxie And The Banshees, Echo & The Bunnymen, Joy Division, The Cure, and This Mortal Coil. A solo piano and vocals performance of Bring On The Dancing Horses I caught on the Web made it impossible for me to see this piece as being any different from those penned by Birch. While a bizarre version in the style of an old "Soul Revue" - down to the sartorial side, as per the clothes worn by her backing band while performing on a TV program the name of which I can't remember - of This Corrosion hinted in the general direction of Eurythmics in their "Soul" period, circa Be Yourself Tonight.

Diane Birch has often talked about her strong teen appreciation of many "Goth" artists. It was the timing of the release of The Velveteen Age, so soon after Bible Belt, that had me puzzled. (By the way: am I really the only one to consider Diane Birch's portrait on the cover of Bible Belt as an homage to Nico as she appears on the cover of her album The Marble Index?)

Though her appearing on many TV shows gave Birch a good exposure, it appeared at this point that the commercial life of Bible Belt was over. Let's have a look at a few chart figures: #87 in the USA, #77 in UK, #26 in Italy (!). Number of copies sold in the USA (as per Tony Gervino in the New York Times): 72,000. Not a failure by any means, given the temperature of the times, but...

While having a look on the Web, a few months ago, I spotted three videos with new songs by Diane Birch: the tense, mysterious UNFKD, featuring her vocals and piano; the melancholic-sounding Superstars, with surprising vocal shadings; and Diamonds In The Dust, which I didn't like at all: a ballad which reminded me of those songs penned by Diane Warren which appear as the movie end titles start, then shoot up the charts, where they stay for months. When the new album was about to be released, I saw a video of her new single, All The Love You Got, which in many ways looked surprisingly similar to situations which appear in the movie Sound Of My Voice, by Zal Batmanglj and Brit Marling, the song proper sounding quite "adult contemporary".

The gestation of Speak A Little Louder (a title that, provided I read my clues right, sounds like a declaration of intent) has been long and difficult. Listening to the new album makes it easier in retrospect to ascertain who did what on Bible Belt, and album that saw many people busy at work. To put it in a nutshell, I believe the new album to better represent Diane Birch's artistic goals, though at the same time I have to admit that after a week of listening sessions I think it's just not as good as its predecessor. Let's assume the new album needs time to be "understood". Let's admit that releasing Bible Belt II would had been pointless. What in my opinion the new album lacks is the kind of "global vision" that can produce a work that sounds varied and unified at the same time. I also miss those instrumental performances - let's go back for a moment to the time of "classic" Soul, let's listen to Chain Of Fools by Aretha Franklin, and to Respect Yourself by The Staple Singers (both have Roger Hawkins sitting on drums, Tommy Cogbill being featured on bass on the former track) - which can create unforgettable "hooks", a good for instance on Bible Belt being Cindy Blackman's tom figures on Photograph.

I have yet to read an article that deals in good technical terms with the way Speak A Little Louder was recorded and produced (maybe I'll never read one, given the poor commercial state of the more "technical" press), but I have the impression it wasn't easy. Diane Birch has talked of Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder as being her "dream team" for her new album, with David Axelrod writing the arrangements for strings and winds; her enthusiasm for "disco" being a good explanation for the (relatively) rigid grooves on this album.

Drawing my conclusions is not easy. I think that those who believe that nothing worth hearing has entered the charts in the last thirty years (talking about the singles chart) will have a hard time liking this album. My main problem being how to describe it, since listening to the Rick Dees Weekly Top Forty Countdown in the late '90s was my last attempt to investigate US mainstream in depth.

Given the fact that the new album is stylistically all over the map (a lot of tracks being jointly composed by Birch as collaborations, with sometimes deeply unsatisfying results), the glue of Speak A Little Louder is Homer Steinweiss: a writer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer that's known for being the drummer of the fine "new soul" line-up called Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. Working on Birch's album, Steinweiss used NY studio Dunham Sound. Steinweiss teamed up with fine bass player Nick Movshon, so producing "grooves" which sound "dry" but not mechanical.

I have to admit that after many attentive listening sessions the new album made me see Diane Birch as an even better singer than I thought. Which in a way could sound paradoxical, given the fact that I didn't enjoy the new album as fully as I'd hoped. But Speak A Little Louder shows Birch as being a lot more versatile than on Bible Belt, with clear horizons ahead. Sure, the album would be better without a few tracks, but Diane Birch works in today's framework, where "album" is a "virtual" concept: I don't think many people nowadays listen to albums as a whole, giving them their undivided attention.

The vocals on the new album are something else. The sound philosophy of Bible Belt when it comes to vocals - the concept that vocals are at the right volume when, closing our eyes, we feel we can touch the head of the singer - has been replaced by a more "elastic" approach which goes hand-in-hand with the great variety of styles which appear on the new album. Great care has been applied to the vocal timbres, and the vocal placement in the stereo spread. A new thing on Speak A Little Louder is that this time Diane Birch does it all herself, with no outside help. In so differently from Bible Belt, the Rhodes is rarely heard here, while the acoustic piano is definitely featured - sometimes lyrical, sometimes propulsive. Lotsa keyboards as colour this time, with taste.

Let's have a look at those tracks.

Speak A Little Louder is a kind of sing-along with multiple vocals - maybe one could define it as having an "assertive" attitude? - reminding me a bit of ('80s duo) Roxette. Fine vocal crescendo, with echo.

Lighthouse opens with sampled vocals, then solo voice, then "fat" toms, the songs being "almost-disco", halfway between Annie Lennox and Abba. Didn't really like the choir. Fine piano. Funny, is that a Bruce Springsteen reference, or what?

All The Love You Got features high drama - and lotsa "bravura". It reminded me a bit of Adele: in fact, co-writer Eg White is a frequent collaborator. From what I understand, this was the first piece of the album to be recorded, which retrospectively can have us see a number of "alternative futures", not all of them risk-free. Interesting modulations. Birch on vocals, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, from The Roots, on drums.

Tell Me Tomorrow is a piano ballad, with a nasal intonation - la Stevie Nicks? Sounds quite fresh, and captivating.

Superstars is "space-age", with synth. A piano ballad featuring the vocals. A fine melodic development, fine drums, interesting lyrics.

Three "dance" pieces appear at this point:

Pretty In Pain - a pun on words on Pretty In Pink, the title song (off the movie starring Molly Ringwald) sung by The Psychedelic Furs. A disco ballad penned by Diane Birch and Betty Wright. Vocals to the fore, fine piano backing, a good bridge.

Love And War is a mid-tempo disco. Very fine vocal performance. It reminded me a bit of Nile Rodgers. In my opinion the best "commercial" thing on this album.

Frozen Over is a mid-tempo. Every time the song ends - "I'm frozen ooover!" - I almost wait for Rick Dees to appear, saying "She's Diane Birch! She'ssss frozen over!". It's a potential hit, but it drags. Clouds and Clocks gives it a "thumbs down".

Diamonds In The Dust is a "power ballad" in the general direction of Diane Warren. Fine melodic development, but... it sounds like Celine Dion! There's an atrocious guitar. (Who's Barrett Yeretsian?)

UNFKD is a piano ballad jointly composed with Matt Hales - aka Aqualung - who also produced and mixed the track. Maybe the most "modern"-sounding here when it comes to the treatment of vocals and sounds. Almost symphonic, it reminded me a bit of Fiona Apple. Towards the end, a fine vocal crescendo in the right channel, in parallel, almost hidden: not to be missed.

It Plays On is the "open" ending to the "Spartan" edition of the album. A piano ballad that, again, reminded me of Stevie Nicks, it was written and produced by Birch herself. A perfect "70s pop piano ballad" which could potentially prove to be an evergreen, and the kind of song that's played at the weddings - in spite of its topic! It fades.

Walk The Rainbow To The End - this, too, was entirely written and produced by Diane Birch - starts the album's "second part". It starts like something by Emily Bezar, vocals and piano, almost operatic, then it morphs into something that's quite reminiscing of... Neil Young. Hypnotic. Lotsa keyboards. Fine development. A great track.

Adelaide is a "soul-rock" ballad, or at least, it sounds like one to me. Vocals to the fore. Amateurish-sounding guitar. Mediocre.

Staring At You is a dark, involving track, one of the best things on the album. It reminded me a bit of... Robyn? Garbage? Great groove, very fine melodic moments, with fine coloration by a synth that to me sounds like an old Roland JX3P. (Strobo lights magically appear, also a couple of ecstasy tablets.)

Hold On A Little Longer, written by Birch, was produced by Matt Hales, who also played all instruments, except for Rhodes and piano. Mysterious, melodic, rich, involving. Symphonic.

Truer Than Blue is a piano ballad that ends the album as an "ear cleaner". A melodic classicism that reminded me of Joni Mitchell.

I was surprised to see Diane Birch - on the Web, off some summer live concerts - appear a bit uncertain, given the fact that at the time of her first album she looked super-certain about what to do, appearing on a lot of TV shows - the USA "usual suspects", Jools Holland and The Guardian in the UK, a French radio whose name I forgot. Quite assured when alone, or when backed by her live quartet a few years ago, now it looked like Diane Birch was backed by a bunch of amateurs. And to me Diane Birch doesn't look like an "audience-eater", like Annie Lennox or Stevie Wonder in their prime.

Of all the pictures which appear in the CD booklet featuring the song lyrics I noticed one that's quite tiny. It shows a part of a room where a keyboard instrument is placed. Among various objects, at the price of losing a lot of what's left of my sight, I saw a framed close-up of George Harrison (which to me looks like his picture off the Beatles' "White Album") on a wall; a couple of pictures of somebody who could be Nico in her blond period, circa Chelsea Girl; and the front cover of a vinyl album: Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren. We'll see.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2013

CloudsandClocks.net | Nov. 5, 2013