Listening to: Diane Birch, Bible Belt

Diane Birch Bible Belt

A review of Diane Birch’s Bible Belt

It almost didn’t happen, my finding out about Diane Birch. My friend and coworker P. and I decided to visit our local Sunrise Records yesterday, on our way back from lunch. You know, two old people looking at CDs. And while I was mildly interested in seeing that Rodrigo y Gabriela have a new release out, the store guy kept telling us about what he was playing on the speakers: Diane Birch. How she was the new Norah Jones, “if this next song doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will,” that sort of thing. He was an older guy, too. And he was zeroing in on the only demographic that still buys CDs. It was a job well done, really, until he started telling us about how good-looking Diane Birch is. Neither of us could quite figure out why that should be a deciding factor, but I dutifully took a look at the CD cover where she appears dressed like Twiggy and gazes back at us with serious big eyes. I wasn’t buying it, or anything else for that matter.

P., on the other hand, rolled the dice and bought it. And so, back at the office, I made a copy, just to see if my on-the-spot judgment had been wrong.

And it was. Diane Birch is quite amazing, and this is a great record. The bio on her website summarizes the story to date: born in Michigan, spent her life in Southern Africa until she was about 10 (her dad was a missionary pastor), returned to the US, learned to play the piano, grew up, moved to LA to become a film composer, supported herself playing standards on the piano, learned to sing, learned to write songs, got a record deal, moved to New York. That’s the really short version. But since she’s only in her mid-20s, perhaps it isn’t really much longer than that.

The record is a remarkably likable blend of 70s female singer-songwriter styles with some pure r&b thrown in for good measure. Music people like to classify things by offering comparisons, and I’ve been thinking about that since yesterday. Everyone is comparing her to Norah Jones. There’s certainly something to that idea: she’s a singer-songwriter who got a young start, sounds mature beyond her years, plays a style that’s not “of her generation,” and uses authentic-sounding retro instrumentation. So that’s certainly one legitimate point of comparison. But it’s lacking in some core ways: this is the album that Norah Jones could have made instead of The Fall, her own new outing (which I’m not done listening to yet, but it certainly didn’t seem to provide the same level of immediate emotional resonance this has).

Other points of comparison might be Katie Melua (same clarity of voice, but Diane Birch has 1000% more substance and writes her own songs), Joss Stone (there’s some serious r&b singing going on here – Diane Birch is not in Joss Stone’s league but then again, that’s neither her game nor how she’s being marketed), or perhaps some of those white British retro-r&b singers, like Adele or Duffy.

The marketing bio on her website draws careful historical comparisons to Laura Nyro, Karen Carpenter and classic AM radio. I won’t comment on those alleged parallels, but this is big, friendly music with accessible melodies that had me humming more than once. The playing is tasteful and thoughtful throughout – she’s surrounded herself with the cream of the crop of New York session musicians, and the collective experience shows.

Ultimately, though, Diane Birch’s voice is the real star here: not too high, not too low, not too gritty – she has an everywoman voice, like Carole King perhaps. The most beautiful thing about her voice is that she never oversings, never strains, never becomes shrill. She displays a remarkable economy in her vocals that’s both admirable and really surprising in a singer so young. Her phrasing’s impeccable, too. 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 songs are lovely, open, accessible and likable by the broadest cross-section of listeners. They are the sorts of songs you catch on the AM radio of your mind when driving on your imaginary California freeway. Another reviewer has said that the record should have been shorter by about three tracks but couldn’t really say which ones should have been cut. I’d counter that perhaps they all belong there. There really isn’t a weak song here. Even the slightly indulgent ones are charming and somehow work as part of the whole.

I, too, didn’t really want to like Diane Birch. I think her label’s marketing is not doing her justice, and the cover images (often the first and only thing you have to go on in a record store) produce some very strange cognitive friction. But the music is – unequivocally – glorious and deserves to be heard and loved.

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