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
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?
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,
"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.
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
"point zero", failing to see the large background of which they
were two (quite different) syntheses.
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'.
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).
Belt is an album that's at its best when listened to, rather then described.
Here are just a few quick points.
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.
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.
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.
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 2010
CloudsandClocks.net | May 20, 2010