Diane Birch definitely took the long way around to crafting her debut album Bible Belt. Raised by a Seventh Day Adventist preacher, she was constrained by religious isolationism until her teenage years, when she was able to rebel through her fantasy world and her obsession with Goth culture.
What’s impressive, however, is how the circle has wrapped around to the beginning; Bible Belt is awash in sacred imagery, from angels and demons to the layered chord structures of the church hymns she was raised on. More interesting, however, is the music itself which hearkens back to the likes of Carole King, Laura Nyro and Tumbleweed Connection-era Elton John. In the case of Nyro, Birch even suggests she’d never heard the songwriter until she was compared to her so often she had to seek out the music and hear for herself.
The bottom line is that Bible Belt is as self-assured a debut as you’re ever going to hear from someone as young as Birch. Clearly the whirlwind introduction to the world of popular music has served her well, as these thirteen songs are awash in strong melodic structure with vocals that will blow your mind on repeated listens.
The album is as classicist as it comes, the perfect compliment to the late 60s / early 70s folk-pop albums she’s emulating; while the singles are there in all their glory (“Valentino” and “Nothing But A Miracle” are definitely strong radio candidates), the real depth behind the album is found in the deep-album cuts – the airy Tapestry groove of “Fools,” the “Daniel”-esque “Ariel,” and the Janis Joplin groove of “Choo Choo,” which give the album a “play it through to find the Gold” aesthetic.
The album’s opener, “Fire Escape,” stands out as a stunning showcase for Birch’s magnificent voice, as a rising tide of strings, piano, drums and light touches of organ layer behind the smooth, sultry vocals which prove to be a much more artistically honest homage to 60s soul than Amy Winehouse could ever dream of. And “Rewind” makes the album’s perfect centerpiece, a six-minute exercise in groove which proves to be an excellent example of Birch’s ability to craft a strong pop hook.
The whole album’s full of moments like these, which makes it a rewarding listening experience time and again. There’s seemingly something for everyone, and the retro stylings don’t seem overly calculated – it’s clear from the first time around that Birch is writing and recording the music she loves. With an EP due this week with covers of her favorites from the likes of Siouxie and the Banshees and Echo and the Bunnymen, it’s unlikely she’s going to be content taking the easy road to success.
Diane Birch is clearly someone to keep an eye on, and her music should prove to be rewarding for anyone who professes to enjoy meaningful music from an artist still building her musical blueprint. Bible Belt is one of the strongest pop albums of this year or last, and definitely deserves to find an audience for the talented songwriter behind it.
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