Posts Tagged ‘Nothing but a Miracle’

(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:

Mesmerizing. Melancholic. Those two words, more than any other, sum up Diane Birch’s new single, “The End,” which asks why a star shines brightest at the end. On Facebook, she noted that it’s in honor of her father, who passed away in January 2013.

Head over to her Bandcamp page to purchase and download it.

In addition to being the pastor of the Church of Birch, Diane is a wondrous singer-songwriter – one of my favorites, in fact. Her 2009 debut album, Bible Belt, was a delight (and my Album of the Year); it sounded like a lost treasure from the 1970s. A year later, her second offering, The Velveteen Age, recast seven classic goth songs of the ‘80s and ‘90s with a pop sheen that was simply hypnotic. Speak a Little Louder, from 2013, was less the Carole King and Laura Nyro of her debut and more Fleetwood Mac/Stevie Nicks, and no less astounding.

Three years later, and the Nous EP glowed liked embers in the dark. As I wrote in my review, “It’s atmospheric, restrained and moody, accented by muted vocals and figurative wisps of smoke swirling from speakers.”

Which leads to today’s Top 5: Diane Birch.

1) “Nothing but a Miracle.” So I read a review of Bible Belt in Rolling Stone about a month before the album’s release. It received, if I remember correctly, three-and-a-half stars, and sounded like something potentially up my alley. So I did what any self-respecting potential fan would do: looked her up on Facebook, and began playing the four songs she’d posted on her page, including this gem. Halfway through, my Diane called in, “Who are you listening to? I love her!” And, thus, the Church of Birch gained its 201st and 202nd parishioners.

2) “Photograph.” The first time we saw her, in July 2009, I didn’t have a smartphone, just a cheap Virgin Mobile cellphone that I kept in my car’s glove compartment for emergencies. But I wanted to – if nothing else – get a picture. So I brought our Canon digital camera with 720p video capability, took a few shots, and then set it on the table and hit play for this song.

3) “Fall in Philadelphia.” Bible Belt garnered lots of press and TV appearances for Diane, but none that was as much fun to watch as her appearance on Live From Daryl’s House. Here, she and Hall sing a Hall & Oates classic…

4) “Bring on the Dancing Horses.” My favorite song from The Velveteen Age. Here, she breaks down why she recorded it and performs it solo.

5) “Dreams/Superstars.” This clip comes from a 2013 StageIt show. I’ve only watched a handful of live-streamed shows – the most recent was Neil Young’s Hometown concert. (They’re always fun, though never as much fun as the real thing.) Since I couldn’t figure out how to capture this stream for posterity’s sake, I held up my…I think it was an iPod Touch, as I’d yet to make the leap to the iPhone. (I still relied on the cheap cellphone that lived in the glove compartment.) So the quality isn’t the best.

And a few bonuses…

“Pretty in Pain.” Five months after that StageIt show, we were lucky enough to see Diane at the World Cafe Live Upstairs promoting Speak a Little Louder. We arrived early to eat, as the venue doubles as a restaurant, and saw (and enjoyed) her soundcheck. She channels her inner-Stevie Nicks in parts of this song.

“Heavy Cross.” I’ve shared this clip before, but no matter. It’s a classic, killer performance.

And here’s “Fools,” another Bible Belt standout, from the same show:

And, finally, “Stand Under My Love.” I’ve shared it before – it’s a stripped-down version of one of the Nous tracks. It’s always worth watching again.

Humans have lived, longed, loved, lost and loved again, forged wars and fought peace, and argued about politics familial, social and cultural, since the dawn of time. Such is the grist of poetry and song, of course, and while many lyrical laments litter the byways of history, forgotten, much has stuck around – thanks to the advent of, first, paper; second, recordings; and, last, the resonance of the works themselves. Whether they come from the pen of Wallace Stevens or piano of Carole King, or the hills of Appalachia, expressions of the heart, soul and psyche have remained constant through the ages. It’s why music, like all art, doesn’t come with an expiration date. We, as a people, live, long, love, lose and love again, and argue amongst ourselves, forever and ever. Amen.

I mentioned in my last post that I sent my niece CDs for her 21st birthday. (A few more than I intended, actually, but the prices on two were obscenely low.) Three harken back to the 1970s and the others hail from the past few years. The lines that lead from those of yore to the present are right there, to be heard.

One thing that I did, and I have no idea if it worked as intended, was to turn Amazon’s free gift cards into short notes about each album. So, for today’s Top 5: Classics, Old & New, here are the picks with my notes (and a bit extra) included.

1) Carole King – “So Far Away” from Tapestry, 1971. King, of course, is one of the all-time greats; and this album is, too. I wrote in the note, “Blue, Rickie Lee’s debut and Tapestry are stone-cold classics that have influenced many, including Diane Birch, FAK & the Staves.“ In retrospect, I should have singled out Tapestry specifically, as it was the top-selling album for 15 weeks in a row during the winter and spring of ’71. Rolling Stone rates it the No. 35 Album of All Time.

2) Joni Mitchell – “River” from Blue, 1971. I wrote: “This is rightfully considered one of the greatest singer-songwriter albums of all time, and has influenced generations of artists. ‘River’ is amazing.” Rolling Stone rates it the No. 30 Album of All Time.

3) Rickie Lee Jones – “Chuck E.’s in Love” from Rickie Lee Jones, 1979. I wrote: “Rickie Lee’s debut was and remains a stunner, building upon the blueprints laid down by Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and Patti Smith, among others.” I’d add: Rickie Lee radiates utter coolness on everything she does, which is why she’s the Duchess of Coolsville. (Her most recent album was one of my favorites from last year, too, for what that’s worth.)

4) Diane Birch – “Nothing but a Miracle” from Bible Belt, 2009. I wrote, borrowing an observation from my Diane: “This album, in many ways, is a modern-day Tapestry.” That’s a tad over-the-top, granted, but there’s no denying the charm of this modern-day wonder. I remember reading the review of it in Rolling Stone a month or so before its street date; it sounded like something I’d like, so I looked her up on Facebook, where she’d posted four of the songs from the album. Within a few minutes, Diane called in: “Who is that? I really like her!” We’ve been fans ever since.

5) First Aid Kit – “Cedar Lane” from Stay Gold, 2014. I wrote: “This was my favorite album of 2014 – FAK are two sisters from Sweden who mine an Americana sound.” Notes, of course, can’t include hyperlinks, so I’ll include one here instead: my Albums of the Year, 2014 post.

6) The Staves – “Make It Holy” from If I Was. 2015. I wrote: “This album is a gem – my favorite from last year.” (Here’s that post.)