Archive for the ‘Diane Birch’ Category

Making music is not akin to building a model, though sometimes it may seem that way. Prefabricated pieces aren’t stamped out at a factory in some far-off foreign land. Picture-laden directions aren’t included. There’s no inserting of staccato guitar solo A into steady rhythm B, and no slathering on glue and waiting for it to dry. Otherwise, the world would be awash in indistinguishable songs.

Oh wait. We are.

But such has been the case since the dawn of the entertainment industry. Hits beget blurry copies that smell of mimeograph ink – and if you don’t appreciate that reference, don’t worry. It only serves to point out my age and say, slyly, that much of modern pop music isn’t being made for me. (Nor should it be.) As Paul Simon summarized in “The Boy in the Bubble,” “every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.”

Anyway, although my much-ballyhooed “Album of the Year” is an honorific I’ve doled out every year since 1978, when I was 13, putting forth an “Album of the Decade” never occurred to me until a month ago, when the notion was mentioned in someone’s tweet; and then, this month, magazines, newspapers and online outlets began posting their lengthy and semi-lengthy lists. The ones I’ve seen basically weigh artistry and commercial impact, and inevitably mix in a handful of niche records while ignoring select popular hits.

Most are little more than clickbait exercises designed to boost ad impressions.

You’ll find no advertisements on this page. To borrow/adapt the lyrics from Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You,” I don’t write for Pepsi/I don’t write for Coke/I don’t write for nobody/Makes me look like a joke. Also, very few of those lists achieve what I love most about reading about music: a sense of the author. From where I sit, the best music reflects the listener(s) as much as it does the artist. It intertwines with our DNA. (And “best” in that sentence construct is a subjective thing.) 

With all that said, the reality of the past decade – which saw good times, bad times, and plenty of in-betweens for me and mine – is that a handful of albums turned my ear every year, and quite a few became constants. And of those, a select some have pretty much become one with my soul; they mean as much to me as the music of my youth.

One caveat: Your mileage may vary. One more caveat: It’s too early for my favorite albums of this year to be included here, as one never knows just how long they’ll stick with you (though I can’t imagine Allison Moorer’s Blood fading away). And one last caveat: I’m a middle-aged white guy with catholic tastes. (To quote Paul Simon again, “I know what I know.”) While I enjoy many different musical avenues, I generally find myself circling the same blocks of rock, pop and Americana/country.

And with that out of the way, here are my top seven albums for the 2010s.

1) Rumer – Seasons of My Soul (2010). In my first blog post on the Hatboro-Horsham Patch (which I’ve since moved to this site) in February 2012, I called it “an atmospheric song cycle that’s teeming with soulful, knowing lyrics and melodies that wrap themselves around the heart.” It spoke to me then and speaks to me now. It’s the definition of “essential.

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (2016). I cannot properly put into words the many ways this album affected me, other than to say this: From the moment I first heard it, it felt like it had been with me all my life. “Honest Life” is a song I want played at my funeral, whenever that may be. “Some things take a lifetime to fully understand.” (For my initial review of it, click here.)

3) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (2012). This may be a controversial pick for some, as not even all Neil fans appreciate its grandeur. Such is life. But as I wrote in this “essentials” essay, “it features sprawling songs that capture the messy essence of this thing called life.”

4) First Aid Kit – Stay Gold (2014). So, long about 2012, I had pretty much given up hope for the youth of the world. And then I heard “Emmylou” by the Swedish sister act known as First Aid Kit and realized that, indeed, I was wrong. As good as The Lion’s Den album was, however, nothing prepared me for this gem. The psychedelic folk of “Cedar Lane” remains as hypnotic to me now as it did then.

5) Juliana Hatfield – Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018). I can hear some guffaws echoing through the interconnected tubes that make up this thing we call the “internet.” Whatever. This album saw two of my favorite worlds collide, and made a rough last half of the decade much sweeter. To rework a line from my initial review, it captures the spirit of the originals while adding a touch of Juliana’s heart.

6) Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball (2012). From my original review (another first posted to the Patch but since relocated here): “[W]hat makes a song great isn’t that it conjures spirits from our youthful nights, but that it speaks to the present. Maybe the first blush of melody hurtles us into the past, but the bridge jerks us as fast into the here and now. And the lyrics ring true no matter the age – or our age, for that matter. The runaway American dream that drives Born to Run, for example, represents today as much as 1975, just as the bitter realities and resignation of Darkness reflect working-class life of every era. As Springsteen sings on the title track of Wrecking Ball, his new album, “hard times come and hard times go/yeah, just to come again.” Some things, for good and bad, never change.”

7) Diane Birch – Nous (2016). This EP is a true work of art anchored by what, to me, is one of the decade’s greatest songs: “Stand Under My Love.” To borrow from my review, Nous “documents dreams, disappointments, disillusionment, faith and acceptance, and an awareness not spoken that, indeed, the Last Things are the First Things.”

The transition to fall means that, weekday mornings, I’m on my way to work when the first glimmers of daylight seemingly push the darkness from the sky. 

“First glimmers” – that, I see now, is what I should have dubbed my “first impressions” posts. But as Diane Birch reminds us in her new single, “Wind Machine,” “Epiphanies knock around like loose change in your pocket.” They don’t mean much if one doesn’t act on them, in other words. The four-minute tune is an autumnal song, aka a slice of melancholic wonder that uses the transitional months between summer and winter as a metaphor for an end:

“November is comin’ on and the nights are getting longer/summer always deceives/little promises like the orange leaves/blowin’ in a wind machine…”

To borrow from what I wrote a few years back about the Church of Birch pastor’s Nous album, “Wind Machine” is – in many ways – Denise Levertov set to song; and if it’s a harbinger of things to come, let’s move the clock hands ahead ourselves so that DB’s new album – which was delayed due to the PledgeMusic collapse – comes out next week instead of next year. 

(The single is available via all the usual suspects, including Apple Music and Spotify.)

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

In late spring of 2009, the U.S. was roiled by a recession that was teetering on a depression due to a succession of ill-advised decisions made by leaders within the business, financial and political spheres. The previous decade had essentially seen segments of the economy built on the funhouse-mirror model and, by design, few indicators reflected reality. Clarity came crashing to the fore in the fall of 2008, however, when Lehman Brothers collapsed. Unemployment soon soared; through June 2009, when Bible Belt was released, some 744,000 jobs were being lost a month. Home foreclosures, which had been on the rise for some time due to ill-advised loans, saw a similar spike.

While there’s more grist to be milled from the meltdown, the main gist I wish to convey is this: Everyday people were being hurt: Two-income households became one; and one-income households became none. Belts were tightened, and the pocket change that once paid for impulse purchases was redirected to bills. Even those not directly impacted by the economic shift changed their spending habits.

Which leads me back to late spring of 2009 – mid-May, to be specific. One evening, after returning home from work, I found myself leafing through the most recent Rolling Stone, which I subscribed to. In those days, the first thing I did upon opening the magazine was to flip through the review section. One title that caught my eye: Bible Belt, which received three-and-a-half stars. The short review was fairly upbeat, referenced Elton John and the song “Ariel,” and made Diane Birch sound like someone whose music I should check out.

The problem: It was May, and the album wasn’t due until June. There were no sound samples on Amazon. There were no videos on YouTube. But she had a Facebook page, and on said page I found not one, not two, but four complete songs for folks like me to stream. I clicked on the first…

…and was instantly transported. The weight of the day – and, in those days, it was a heavy weight – dissipated, and I knew in that instant that her music would be a part of my life for the rest of my days. I clicked “like” on the page – the 201st person to do so – and then started the next song. “Who is that?” my Diane called in.

I should explain: In those days, my computer was in our apartment’s second bedroom, just off a short hall leading from the dining area to the master bedroom. “Second bedroom” is being a tad generous, however: Due to our packrat ways, by then – 19 years of living in the same space – it had become a glorified walk-in closet, filled with my computer desk and chair, sofa, another desk, three stuffed bookshelves and a half-dozen book-filled milk crates, a dresser, and hundreds upon hundreds (upon hundreds) of CDs scattered about, plus stacks of magazines and…did I mention books? Diane’s desk and computer were down the hall, just off the dining area. She heard what I played; and I heard what she played. 

So: “Who is that?” my Diane called in. “I love it!”

I explained how to find the songs on Facebook and, within minutes, she was Diane’s 202nd Facebook follower. I pre-ordered the CD and, once it came into our household, little else was played for the rest of the year. I should mention, we were both well into middle age by then – a time when most folks stop seeking out new sounds. That we found new music as magical as Bible Belt? It was nothing but a miracle…

As I wrote in this Top 5, the album sounds like a lost treasure from the 1970s. Think Carole King, Carly Simon and Laura Nyro, among others, as well as Elton John and Paul McCartney – the melodies are effortless and natural, in other words. At the same time, however, the songs are imbued with a gritty undertow and gospel flourishes, with her vocals coming straight from the church…the Church of Birch, to be specific. 

The cratering economy coupled with the myopic music industry, which had been sputtering all decade in response to the digital revolution, assured that she wouldn’t find the success she should have.

Artistic greatness doesn’t always equate with sales, of course, and “greatness” is an awfully big term to toss around. Yet when she played Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live Upstairs on July 19th of that year, said greatness was etched in stone – it was as sublime and sweet a show that we’ve witnessed, one that I still recall with wonder.

Here she is performing “Photograph,” as captured by our Canon digital camera, that very night:

In fact, the only downside to the concert was her failure to play one of my 13 favorite songs from Bible Belt, “Mirror Mirror.”

(That said, her mash-up of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and the Beatles’ “I Got a Feeling” was way cool. I wish I’d recorded it – and the entire show – instead of the song-and-a-half that I captured.)

To wrap up: To my ears, Bible Belt sounds as fresh and new today as it did in 2009, and Diane’s vocals throughout are a marvel. In my life, it’s more than an “essential” listen. It’s a must.

The track listing:

PledgeMusic, which began operations in 2009, has gone belly-up.

For those unaware, it was a crowdfunding website that connected indie music artists with fans who provided backing for specific projects. It was a win-win for everyone. The artists weren’t left footing the upfront costs for their projects (no mortgaging the house!) and, if they were smart, priced in a profit for themselves. Fans, for their part, scored new music plus, if they chose, nifty premiums – everything from autographed items to pay-to-order cover songs to house concerts to a chunk of an artist’s hair. They also gained access to an online diary that chronicled the project via posts and audio/video uploads.

The PledgeMusic model had artists receiving 85 percent of their raised funds through two payments over the life of a given project, with the company deducting its portion – 15 percent – from the second. There’s also this: The site’s terms and conditions says that “Monies collected by PledgeMusic for a Campaign will be held on account for the Artist.” That infers, at least to me, that the money raised by each artist was segregated from the company’s operating funds, and perhaps that was the case at first. Over time, however, it appears that Pledge dipped into the 85 percent supposedly earmarked for the artists, though why we don’t know. What we can say for certain: Payments to artists were delayed. And delayed again. And, finally, stopped altogether. 

PledgeMusic is now expected to enter bankruptcy, perhaps as soon as this week. The money sent in by fans to support specific artists will likely go to the company’s creditors, whoever they may be, and not the artists themselves. I’ll leave it to others to expound on and investigate the whys and wherefores of the company’s stumbles, and instead state the obvious: There’s no coming back from it.

And while Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and other crowdfunding sites remain, PledgeMusic’s absence will be felt – at least for me. I found it, by far, the most user-friendly. It’s always where I began my searches for new or established artists to support.  

The first PledgeMusic project I backed was in 2011, when I signed on for the Juliana Hatfield album that became There’s Always Another Girl. In the years since, in addition to signing on for Juliana’s additional Pledge projects (and the Blake Babies), I backed a variety of other artists, including (but not limited to) 10,000 Maniacs, Josh Rouse, Garland Jeffreys, Rickie Lee Jones and, most recently, Church of Birch pastor Diane Birch, whose plate-passing campaign came in 14 percent above her goal just as PledgeMusic began suspending payments to artists.

So, for today’s Top 5: RIP PledgeMusic (aka Songs from PledgeMusic Albums I Helped Fund).

1) Juliana Hatfield – “Taxicab.” This driving tune – which is made for listening to while speeding down the highway – hails from Juliana’s under-rated There’s Always Another Girl album, which began life as “Juliana Hatfield New Album” on PledgeMusic in 2011.  

2) Garland Jeffreys – “Is This the Real World?” Garland’s 2013 Truth Serum album was highlighted by quite a few songs, but this one is – hands down – my favorite. One listen and, trust me, you’ll be hooked.

3) Rickie Lee Jones – “Feet on the Ground.” That artists such as Juliana, Garland and Rickie Lee had to turn to PledgeMusic says all one need know about the state of the music industry circa the 2010s. This song is one of the highlights from her 2015 Other Side of Desire album.

4) The Stone Foundation – “Next Time Around.” The British soul/R&B band’s Everybody, Anyone album was one of my favorites from last year. Absolutely addictive. And this tune is a stone-cold classic.

5) Diane Birch – “Stand Under My Love.” Diane’s 2018 PledgeMusic project reached its goal, only to have the money swiped from her collection plate. So I’m reaching back to this insta-classic tune from her 2016 EP, Nous. In another era, it would have been a huge hit.

(If you like it, head over to Diane’s BandCamp page and buy the EP.)