I've Just Heard the Future of Singer-Songwriters and Her Name Is...

Diane Birch, apparently.

Even now as what's left of our music industry evolves into whatever it may soon become -- a primordial forest with iPods plantings? A brave new digital marsh populated by mutant musical hunters and gatherers? -- you still hear a rare album that reminds you why albums still exist. Truth be told, I never even heard the name Diane Birch until this weekend when I opened my mail and put on an advance copy of Bible Belt, Birch's debut album that comes out in May. Already I can't wait to hear and see more.

From what I could quickly gather online, Birch grew up the youngest daughter of a traveling preacher who covered territories from South Africa to Australia before settling down in Portland, Oregon. So her upbringing sounds colorful and intriguing, but this young sing-songwriter sure doesn't need to coast on a cool back-story. Wherever she comes from, Birch has delivered an album with strong echoes of Laura Nyro and Carole King -- two absolute all-time greats in my book -- but with songs that, like the best of Alicia Keys and Fiona Apple, retain that thrilling shock of the new.

Trying to find out more, I went to Birch's MySpace where she identifies herself as "that Piano Girl." Birch looks appropriately cool bohemian, and begins her list of influences with "church hymns, Beethoven, Burt Bacharach, Nina Simone" and goes to mention everyone from The Carpenters to Rachmaninoff to Jonathan Richman to Donny Hathaway to Aaron Copeland to Notorious B.I.G. Laura Nyro and Carole King make the cut on her list too, as do Kraftwerk, Bobbie Gentry. Birch's big, eclectic list of influence concludes with a nod to her "imaginary friend Valentino . . . may he rest in peace."

Dead or alive, "Valentino" appears to have inspired the second song on Bible Belt, but on first listen, the other non-imaginary standouts here include "Fools" and "Nothing But a Miracle." Bible Belt is produced by Steve Greenberg -- who signed her to his S-Curve Records label -- soul great Betty Wright (of "Clean Up Woman") and Michael Magini working together for the first time since they helped bring the world Joss Stone. The musical tapestry they have woven features excellent musical support from some great players including Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith Group, Adam Blackstone from The Roots, George Porter from The Meters, and some backing vocals from not only Wright but also Eugene Pitt, the splendid lead voice of the doo wop greats The Jive Five. For all that fine backing, the clear star here is Birch who wrote all the songs here, sings like an absolute dream and plays soulful piano like some young Aretha.

Even for this middle-aged Jew who's been burned by bright new faces before, this particular Bible Belt is more than welcoming -- it's downright thrilling.