While this space is normally devoted to film reviews, the following review of young singer Diane Birch’s first record is a welcome exception to the rule. -Ed
When I first heard the music of Diane Birch, whose debut album Bible Belt hit stores June 2nd, my first thought was, “I’ve heard this music before.” After listening to several more songs, I thought, “I’ve never heard anything quite like it.” Perhaps her MySpace page puts it best: “Sounds like everything/everyone/nothing/no one.”
Birch is a 26 year old singer, songwriter and keyboardist based in New York City. She grew up the daughter of a traveling Seventh-day Adventist minister. Her preacher dad took the family from Michigan to Zimbabwe, South Africa, Australia, and finally Portland, Oregon, all by the time she was thirteen. Birch was not allowed to play secular music as a child, but learned piano from Suzuki method books like many other Adventist kids have done. Unlike most Adventist kids, Birch went on to find a place in the music industry, far removed from the churches of her childhood.
Her first release is undoubtedly inspired by those early years in the church. Birch also draws inspiration from a rich imagination, including a make-believe friend named Valentino–who she sings about in track number two, and from the music of the 1920’s. She describes the story behind Bible Belt by saying, “Because my dad was a preacher, the very religious upbringing I had made a huge impact on my life, in a very restraining and constricting way. I’m constantly talking about heaven, angels, and forgiveness. I’m hugely inspired by church hymns — their chord structures, their colors. It was a form of constraint for me as a child but now I see that it has fueled my creative fire.”
Even without knowing the words, many Adventist preachers’ kids could sing along with the songs on Bible Belt. The songs tell stories that seem pointedly directed at the toxic parts of religion, the parts that led Birch to the conclusion that religion is “really poisonous.”
My mama tells me I won’t get through the pearly gates
‘Cause I ain’t sorry for my sins
And all my mistakes
Mama I don’t know if I’m goin’ up or down,
But I know heaven’s gonna be one lonely town
But if it’s happiness you want,
That’s what you’ll get
You gotta rise up, little sister
Turn on the light
Wise up to the stories you’ve been told
‘Cause love don’t come in black or white
(Lyrics from “Rise Up”)
In each of the eleven tracks on Bible Belt, there are unmistakable echoes of a life colored by religion. One can tell by the hymnodic tunes Birch sings that church hymns played into her distinctive sound.
Her music is reminiscent of Carole King, Aretha Franklin, a touch of Norah Jones, and even a bit of Alison Krauss. Birch names an eclectic cast of influences on her music from Beethoven to Notorious B.I.G, and from The Supremes to Portishead. Yet for all of the music—yup, it’s very secular—that Birch draws upon, her style is patently original. That is a difficult feat in today’s supersaturated indie market where anyone can sell their mp3s online. Birch’s voice has an edge to it—not a sharp edge…more like the edge of a spoon. It’s smooth, silvery, polished and firm, not rough or cutting.
I like Daine Birch’s music most for its honesty. It doesn’t pull punches. When Birch has doubts, she says so. Where she feels sadness, it shines through, and when she finds happiness, we hear about it. Even so, her honesty is unassuming; it isn’t officious. Perhaps as the (somewhat) mutinous daughter of a minister, she has learned that the best sermons don’t require preaching.
If you like the soulful style of Karen Carpenter and Carole King, check out Bible Belt. On the other hand, skip it if you think that Adventists have no business listening to secular music.
Jonas Uribe lives, works, and listens to good music in Vancouver, Washington.