Diane Birch's first songs aren't all that memorable, but she's got a remarkable voice and her record sure sounds good, even if it's straight out of 1971.
I'm embarrassed to admit that the only reason I wanted to review this album was because a Facebook ad kept asking me something to the effect of, "Do you like Joni Mitchell? Then you'll love the timeless debut album of Diane Birch." Well, yes, I do like Joni Mitchell. But the ad creeped me out and smacked of desperation. So I was fully prepared -- excited, even -- to trash Diane Birch if given the opportunity. I suppose I deserved to have my expectations crushed, but Bible Belt is a lot better than I expected. Not at all perfect, and maybe not even all that memorable, but it's palatable, tasteful stuff.
The thing that irritated me the most about that ad was the claim that this album was somehow "timeless". In this case, "timeless" seems to mean, "reminiscent of the early-'70s singer-songwriters". Diane Birch is clearly being presented as a student of that particular movement; the ad makes that explicit. The "timelessness" of Bible Belt comes mostly from its production, which evokes the singer-songwriter classics with impressive accuracy. It's actually kind of fun to spot the influences: the background vocals on "Fire Escape" are a clear homage to Joni Mitchell's multilayered vocal parts on her own records; the title of "Nothing But a Miracle" echoes Laura Nyro, and the arrangement is straight out of Tapestry; that Carole King classic is all over "Fools" and "Don't Wait Up", as well. Even the cover portrait has the understated feel of Sweet Baby James or a trunk-load of Linda Ronstadt and Anne Murray records, as though she's saying, "My name is Diane. Thanks for buying my album. I hope you like it." Might as well have crocheted that into the liner notes. So one ad man's idea of timelessness is this listener's idea of pleasant datedness. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, in the grand scheme of things.
The best part of Bible Belt, sound-wise, is that despite its calculated attempt to position itself among the introspective icons of several decades ago, it manages to do so without being either overly serious or too cute and clever. Birch strikes a good balance: she's playful and bouncy on "Valentino", contemplative on "Rewind", and mostly careful to not overdo anything. On the downside, I think the painstaking recreation of the golden sounds of yesterday detracts from the songs themselves. Maybe the songs aren't very memorable to begin with, or maybe there's just too damned many of them (I'd trim Bible Belt by three songs, probably; don't ask me to pick which three, though). The production is, at the very least, the co-star here. The lyrics almost don't even feel like a factor.
What's the other co-star, you ask? Diane Birch's voice. It's fantastic, and she knows what to do with it, for the most part. She only over-sings about three percent of the time, and she never sounds like she's not invested in the songs, all of which she wrote by herself, music and lyrics. She has good range, and can handle the Southern soul of "Fire Escape" as well as she can the sophisticated soft pop of "Fools". Admittedly, her voice is a great fit for the carefully-crafted sounds surrounding it. And to its credit, Bible Belt never sounds like Joss Stone, who was launched by the same production team that works its magic here. Stone always seemed like she was being touted as a successor to Janis Joplin, who, for all the bloat on much of her studio output, never sounded as synthetic and shiny as Joss Stone.
It's also tempting to draw a comparison between Birch and another of her contemporaries, fellow piano-playing singer-songwriter Norah Jones. It's possible that Birch might attract a somewhat similar audience, although Bible Belt is quirkier than Jones' star-making turn on Come Away With Me and doesn't draw strength from any well-chosen covers (which isn't meant to be a criticism; Jones never let those songs overshadow her own work, and it's hard to imagine any covers sitting comfortably alongside Birch's material). Being slightly more adventurous than Norah Jones, however, doesn't mean that Diane Birch is edgy or taking a whole lot of chances. But that's fine. It doesn't seem like anyone's marketing her as anything other than a throwback, comfort food for folks who like a certain kind of sensitive pop. If that's your bag, you can safely toss Bible Belt in there.