The New Retro
Newcomers Diane Birch and Leslie Mendelson, as well as longtime lesbian fave Maia Sharp, are singer-songwriters bringing back the classic radio sounds of the ’70s in a fresh new way.
Bible Belt, Diane Birch (S-Curve): The first time I listened to this album, I was scratching my head trying to place the voice. I could have sworn I’d not only heard it before, but had also loved it. Which female pop icon from the ’70s was it? Carole King? Laura Nyro? Or some women’s music star I’d forgotten? It sounded so familiar, yet the production was so fresh. Rarely does a CD elicit such a strong response from me on the first listen. I had to find out who Diane Birch was. Turns out, she’s a 26-year-old piano-playing pastor’s daughter who traveled the world as a child due to her father’s ministry, and spent her teen years in Portland, Ore. Now, this stunning debut recording has catapulted her to instant star status, and for good reason. Bold, vintage, sounds and strong melodies abound, from the gospel-Motown flavored opener “Fire Escape” to the hand-clapping fun of “Valentino” and the upbeat revival blues of “Rise Up.” The radio-ready “Fools” and “Nothing But A Miracle” are reminiscent of Carly Simon and grabbed me from the get-go, and so did the Elton John-flavored sing-along “Ariel.” I can’t stop listening! (s-curverecords.com)
Swan Feathers, Leslie Mendelson (Rykodisc): Drawing from the same general pool of influences as Birch, but with a softer, more understated touch, this up-and-coming New York singer-songwriter debuts with an equally impressive set that’s warm and inviting. As the daughter of a music teacher, music was something Leslie Mendelson excelled at from a young age, and by 2002, she’d moved to New York City and made inroads to Manhattan’s downtown music scene. Now, Swan Feathers is sure to get her noticed nationally. With a bright, airy voice and sparse but precise instrumentation, songs like “So Far So Bad” and “Turn It Over” recall the sassiness of Carly Simon, while others like “Easy Love” and Mendelson’s touching remake of the Phil Spector-penned Ronnettes hit “Be My Baby” are more introspective and mellow. The emotion and exuberance of the jazzy “Hit The Spot” and more rockin’ “I See Myself With You” make this an obvious hit, while the sentimental opener “I Know You Better Than That” is a personal fave. (rykodisc.com)
Echo, Maia Sharp (Crooked Crown): I’ve covered Maia Sharp in this column before, and I’ll keep doing so as long as the out singer-songwriter keeps producing amazing records. Long known for her songwriting skills—she’s supplied the Dixie Chicks, Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Trisha Yearwood and many others with hits—Sharp has been making a name for herself as an artist, too. This fifth solo effort adds to that endeavor, with strong cuts like the rebellious pop ditty “Polite Society” and twangy radio single, “John Q. Lonely” leading the way, while the soaring love song “Whole Flat World” is by far my favorite song on the 12-cut disc. Her sound is more country-blues leaning, like her mentor Raitt, and often recalls other country-pop singer-songwriters like Mary Chapin Carpenter, but her solid songwriting chops recall the best of the ’70s writers like Joni Mitchell and Carole King. (maiasharp.com)