Diane Birch


Hoping to find some (good) news, I decided to have a look at Diane Birch's website, given the fact that it had been quite a while since I last heard of her, Diane Birch being an artist whose music I really care about. Sure, things have changed. At the time of its original release, those 72.000 copies her debut album Bible Belt (2009) sold in the States didn't look like much to me, and anyway they were a lot less than what a massive promotional apparatus - various guest slots in some prestigious TV programs included - made it reasonable to assume.

A long, complex preparation phase - which I suppose was not entirely devoid of doubts and indecision - preceded the release of Speak A Little Louder (2013), an album that sported its title as a kind of manifesto, but that in the end suffered from the proverbial "too many cooks" syndrome. And though in this case I don't have any official figures to show, I think I can say total sales were far from encouraging.

To my amazement, typing the usual address took me to a strange picture showing somebody I didn't seem to recognize at all. While the rich, varied website featuring videos and various subsections I remembered so well was nowhere to be found. I seemed to understand there was a new Diane Birch album I could listen to, and eventually buy, on Bandcamp, $5 as the minimum asking price, with a choice of different audio formats. I chose the FLAC format, paid the proper amount, downloaded the file, burnt a CD, and went to my hi-fi system, pronto.

Meanwhile, I'd already managed to watch the official video of the acoustic version for piano and vocals of the song that to me sounds like the commercial centerpiece of the new album (which, by the way, is 27' 28"... short, with CD and vinyl formats on their way, but not out yet): Stand Under My Love, filmed and recorded in Diane Birch's new home, located in Berlin (will wonders ever cease?). And while she didn't look the way I remembered her, the quality of both her vocals and of her new song were exactly the same as before, her left hand and her right leg moving as they were placing the beats inside those bars, reacting to an invisible metronome, the way I remembered (something which reminds me of Regina Spektor).

The album title is Nous, a word that at first I mistook for the French word meaning "we". But the title of the first song, Hymn For Hypatia - of course, my impeccable classical culture immediately made it possible for me to think about the Greek philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician who was famous for her eloquence and learning, also the head of the Neoplatonist school in Alexandria (I lied: in fact, I just looked for the name in my dictionary) - reminded me there's an English word, Nous, from Greek, meaning: "mind" or "intellect". (But also, more informally, "common sense". As in, "After all, maybe producing oneself is the most sensible choice", perhaps?)

Though quite varied, Nous is a work that feels all of a piece. Diane Birch curated the production work herself, besides writing the songs' lyrics and music. The whole greatly benefits from the contribution of a "team" - names will come in a moment or two - that make it possible for the album to sound "modern" but not "anonymous". Diane Birch's vocals on this album sound exceptional: while her versatility is the same as before - and let's not forget her "controlled expressivity" - there's a new vocal polyphony. Nice touch on the piano, she also plays various keyboards, programming this and that, including "sound design", on a few songs she also did the recording and mixing.

Vocals and piano were for the most part recorded and engineered at Vox-Ton Studios in Berlin by Antonio Pulli, with results that are clear, rich, and detailed. Played by Max Weissenfeldt, drums were recorded by Benjamin Spitzmeuller at Joy Sound Studio in Berlin; Spitzmeuller also recorded the wind section that appears in one song, some percussion, and also did some mixing. Fine mastering work, not compressed or "squashed", by Nene Baratto, at Big Snuff Studio in Berlin, Baratto also doing some mixing work.

There are a few "long-distance contributions". On one track, fine strings were arranged and played by Yoed Nir. While on a few tracks, Stuart Matthewman's tenor sax - whose sound I'm sure many readers are familiar with - is the solo element that gets more space, and that I think had more "free rein".

As per her usual, there's a lot of variety when it comes to "styles" - elements of Soul, Gospel, "classic songwriting", even Opera (something which won't surprise those who remember the track Superstars, off Speak A Little Louder) - and the song structure is always visible. But it's the "sound clothing" that often works as a kind of "variable element" that makes these songs live in "present time", with no sense of déjà vu. Even if, quite paradoxically, it's the concept of having sonics change this way that acts as a link to the best "rock" music from the 60s and 70s.

Opening track Hymn For Hypatia starts in a way that's gonna remind the listener of a Gregorian chant, then going into Gospel and Soul. A vocal chord that sounds quite similar to Joni Mitchell's, a piano that works as a framework and as an anchor for the (overdubbed) vocal ensemble. Quite brief, the piece is thematically related to...

The Soul-sounding How Long sports a chorus with unison vocals, a wind section featuring trumpet, flute, and tenor, an up-tempo that sounds not too far from Eurythmics, circa Touch.

Opening with the sound of a stylus playing a vinyl surface, King Of Queens moves at a glacial pace. Effected vocals, bass, percussion, and a "processed" string section with an "ambiguous" acoustic nature. Excellent timbral treatment on vocals.

Interlude is a brief... interlude that's ably performed, with obvious thematic quotes from the previous piece.

Stand Under My Love is without a doubt the most captivating piece of the whole album, with a mood oscillating between a dream and a nightmare. Excellent lead vocals, background vocals, an uncredited keyboard, lotsa reverb, drums to the foreground. There's a fine, "naked" vocal bridge, with background vocals, with an astute harmonic transition back to the chorus.

Walk On Water is the longest track here, whether "hypnotic" or "boring" is something that listeners will have to decide for themselves. It starts with a spoken word introduction for male vocals, then solo vocals and piano, multiple vocals in the chorus, the whole sounding quite symphony-like. Lotsa space for the tenor, also a tiny brass section.

Closing track Woman is a good close for the album. A dry piano intro, vocals, a fine song rich with pauses. The song's second part has the tenor accentuating the jazzy/bluesy mood over some new chords coming from the piano, with fine use of overdubbing.

My review ends here, while I wonder about what's in store for Diane Birch. (Maybe the answer to this question is related to the number of people who will buy the album on Bandcamp, paying $5 or more? Just sayin'.)

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2016

CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 20, 2016