Posts Tagged ‘Photograph’

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:

Most folks are familiar with the cliche “where all the bodies are buried,” and understand that it’s a metaphor about knowing secrets. In my case, though, it’s more like I know where all the pot holes are – and I’m speaking literally. From sunken manhole covers to tire-killing craters, I know when and where to slide to the side to avoid a slew of unpleasant bumps regardless of how fast or slow traffic is going, and whether or not I can actually see beneath the car in front of me. Like others in countless communities across the country, I’ve been driving the same set of streets for the bulk of my life. Some take me to work, some to family and friends, and some to stores. No matter where I’m going, the odds are good that I’ve driven the same roads before.

Which leads to this: Just as my life’s trek was grooving along with minimal bumps, I’ve hit a stretch of ripped-up road: In the coming months, the OGC’s HQ will be transitioning from the Philly ‘burbs to North Carolina’s Durham region.

Yeah, I know. Talk about your major moves.

But the thing about a ripped-up road is this: It’s rarely ripped up for long. In this neck of the woods, the cause is usually due to PennDOT milling old asphalt before laying down a new batch. It’s temporary, in other words, and in time the ride will be better than before.

On Thursday, Diane and I drove down to explore the area. The small slice of Durham that we saw, the American Tobacco Historic District, reminded me of Philadelphia’s brick-laden Old City neighborhood, while the outlying communities of Cary and Chapel Hill conjured such Philly suburbs as Horsham, Warminster and Warrington. Carrboro – home to the legendary Cat’s Cradle – had a funkier, New Hope/South Street vibe. Each looked like a good place to call home.

Anyway, on the ride down and again on the ride north on Saturday, we listened to – what else? – music. But unlike years long ago, when one was at the mercy of the radio, or the tapes and CDs one remembered to bring, we simply clicked on Apple Music, picked a title, and hit play.

Our first agreed-upon choice: Diane Birch’s Bible Belt. The album (my top pick for 2009) has retained its original luster, and rightly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Carole King’s Tapestry – not that anyone but my Diane and I would say so, I suppose. It has a timeless vibe.

I should add that the Church of Birch pastor has a new single slated for release in the next week. Look for it. Buy it. She has a knack for writing songs that take up residence in the soul like few others.

My second choice: Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, which – thus far – rates as my favorite album of 2018. “Suspended in Time” is simply sublime, as is the album as a whole.

My third choice: Another of my favorites of this year, Erin O’Dowd’s Old Town. To quote my wife, “It’s excellent.” (There’s magic to be found in the album’s grooves.)

My last choice: the new Stone Foundation album, Everybody, Anyone, which I plan to review in full next week. It mixes a wide variety of influences into a very cool, original whole.

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.

I’m forever shocked when I read or hear someone about my 50-plus age (give or take a decade) trash the collective talent of today’s younger artists. Here’s the truth: There is much good-to-great music being made by new and relatively new singers and bands, just as there always has been. Courtney Marie Andrews, for instance:

If I’ve listened to Honest Life once, I’ve listened to it 200 times in the past few months. But you’re forgiven (somewhat) if you haven’t heard of her. It’s become easier and easier to miss up-and-coming acts due to our ever-splintering, niche-driven pop culture.

The highways and byways of popular music are littered with artists who failed to breakthrough to the big time, of course. Talent alone has never guaranteed success – luck and circumstance, and drive, play and have always played a major role. That said, below are a handful of new and relatively new-to-me singers and bands, some of whom I’ve featured before – and others that I will again.

1) Hannah’s Yard – “Close Enough.” Hannah’s Yard is an acoustic collective from the English town of Olney, Buckinghamshire, that features a lead singer, Hannah Layton Turner, whose voice is that of an angel. Their songs remind me of Melody Gardot and Norah Jones, among others, and are quite addictive. (Their debut album, Beginnings, is due out May 12th.)

2) Holly Macve – “The Corner of My Mind.” The bayou by way of Brighton? Yep. Macve mixes moodiness, melody and mesmerizing vocals into a tasty elixir.

3) Natalie Gelman – “Photograph.” The singer-songwriter and her band had the good fortune of opening for Bon Jovi recently thanks to Bon Jovi’s opening-act contest. (That’s something more veteran acts should be doing.) Here’s video of the final song of their set:

4) Bully – “Trying.” At last week’s Juliana concert, we met a cool dude who’d flown in from Detroit to attend Juliana concerts in Cambridge, Philly and Virginia. He recommended this band, who he’s seen a dozen times – and, after listening to them a bit, I hear what he hears in them.

5) Fazerdaze – “Lucky Girl.” New Zealand’s Amelia Murray, aka Fazerdaze, is a wonder – I’d say she creates teenage symphonies to God, but given that she’s in her 20s…she creates twenty-something symphonies to God. (Here’s an excellent profile of her.) One listen and you should be hooked.

And two bonuses…

6) The Courtneys – “Silver Velvet.” The Vancouver trio conjure the Bangles with their jangly pop, but, at the end of the day, influences mean nothing if the songs suck. Theirs don’t. If anything, their music sticks in the head like bubblegum on the sidewalk. (Maybe that’s not the best metaphor. But they’re damn good.)

7) Jen Gloeckner – “Row With the Flow.” Gloeckner’s latest release, VINE, is an atmospheric (and very trippy) outing that channels the likes of Mazzy Star and Pink Floyd, among others.