[5 November 2013]
Diane Birch’s much celebrated debut disc, Bible Beat had a rootsy, Americana vibe. Critics praised her combination of original thought and traditional atmosphere and declared her a musician to watch. Speak a Little Louder has completely different sound. The Michigan-born global traveler now works a more modern rock groove. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just be forewarned. Lovers of the first album may be shocked by the difference, but artists should be encouraged to experiment, change, and grow.
Birch has an earthy and ethereal articulation, somewhat reminiscent of Stevie Nick’s Fleetwood Mac material. The singer-songwriter passionately croons of love and life using everything from dubstep beats to her solo piano playing to accent the emotionalism of her voice. Her vocals suggest dust and wonder, experience and naivety, the ache of one who yearns for something not within reach and the satisfied grin of one who has made it. On tunes such as “Lighthouse”, one can hear the smudge of everyone from Rihanna to Adele, Florence Welch to Kate Bush, on different sections. Birch reveals how much she has learned from listening to the radio since her initial release.
However, Speak a Little Louder has two major flaws: her mostly self-penned words and music. For the most part, the lyrics could generously pass for doggerel. One could easily site examples of triteness. Consider this chorus, which would be more appropriately crooned by an ‘80s hair band than a contemporary act.
”Oh, we don’t know where we’re running to
We don’t know what we’re running from
Baby we’re just holding on, holding on
Searching blind for a bridge to cross
Reaching out for a soul to trust
Baby, we’re just holding on, holding on to diamonds in the dust.”
Birch makes the connections between the clichés in her voice so that the apparent contradictions (running/holding, searching for a bridge/reaching for a soul, diamonds/dust) are mixed together to seem meaningful. But they are not. This is empty language.
The music itself suffers from the same problem. There’s a sing/song sameness to the melodies that belies the different orchestrations. One could read the lyrics above and easily guess how the song goes, not because the words are so tuneful but because it is so predictable. The production itself is quite good. The music has a big sound, thanks in part to producer Homer Steinweiss who co-wrote three of the songs, including the title track. Steinweiss makes up for the album’s deficits by featuring Birch’s extraordinary voice in a combination of instrumentations. For those that do not bother to pay much attention to lyrics or melodic variation, this album will kick butt.
Matt Hales (Aqualung) co-wrote the best cut, the cryptically titled “UNFKD”. You can guess what it stands for, but the song’s conceit is a bit more imaginative than one might expect. The cut also allows Birch to sing in a number of different dramatic styles, which she capably handles. The lyrics may be no more than an excuse for Birch to showcase her quiet range, but that’s okay.
Nevertheless, Birch opens the album by reminding herself of the importance of speaking louder (to a tune reminiscent of classic Supertramp). Volume is never the problem here. She makes herself heard no matter if she sings softly or forcefully. Whether she has something to say, well, that’s another matter.