by Eileen Marshall
It's hard to know what to say about Molly Burch. Her music rather goes without saying; it doesn't require any special interpretive framework. Hear thirty seconds of Burch's recently-released debut album, Please Be Mine, and you'll know what you're dealing with: love and longing, laid out in the mode of pop-country singers and "girl groups" of the fifties and sixties. Reviews of the album invariably describe it as "nostalgic" or "retro", which is accurate, to a point. But Burch's work isn't merely an homage to a past era; it's a new entry in a tradition that feels timeless.
A beautiful voice never gets old, and Burch's voice is her chief asset. In the live setting, Burch sings with the same practiced ease that you hear on the record. This isn’t surprising considering that she and her band recorded most of Please Be Mine live in a single day at the studio.
Singing came before songwriting for Burch, and when she eventually did start writing, it was with the goal of crafting songs that would suit her voice, she says. In this she's surely succeeded: both on the record and in her live performances, Burch's striking range is on display. Equally powerful in high and low registers, she swoops from a delicate warble to an emphatic shout with confidence and grace. It's the kind of vocal skill that makes you forget that singing is hard work.
Though you'd be forgiven for mistaking Please Be Mine for the product of an earlier time, her Schubas set featured arrangements that belied the impression of temporal displacement. Lead guitarist Dailey Toliver's solos pointed to more modern influences with their harsh frenzy, their buzz and growl. These moments were a highlight, and a good reason to see Burch and her band play live, rather than just sticking to the record. Hearing Burch work her vocal magic in person is, of course, another compelling reason.
Then there's the intimacy that comes with being in a room with Burch while she performs material that is personal and raw. Burch's lyrics are about rejection from both sides; she sings of desire and regret, always vulnerable and aching.
The album's title track, with which Burch opened her set at Schubas, is an abject supplication. After breaking up with her partner, Burch hopes for a reconciliation she doesn't feel she deserves: "I'd love a hand to hold / Is yours still for me? / I know I don't deserve you back," she sings. The song's chorus is plain and to the point, repeating, "Please be mine," in a drawn-out, heartrending wail. Her set's next song, "Please Forgive Me,” runs along the same lines, as its title would suggest.
From there, Burch played a couple of her more upbeat songs, "Wrong for You" and "Try," before setting aside her guitar to focus solely on the vocals for "Loneliest Heart" and "I Love You Still,” two slower ballads. Self-denigration colors all of these songs, as Burch chastises herself for hurting her beloved—like Fiona Apple, Burch has been a bad, bad girl—and promises from now on to exercise not just kindness and care, but also meek obedience. "I'll be your pet," she sings on "I Love You Still", an image she repeats in two other songs. It's a typically feminine attitude that recalls old songs performed by jazz singers like Billie Holiday, whom Burch cites as a major influence.
But there are moments where Burch affirms her self-worth. On "Downhearted,” one of her stronger songs and the one she chose to close out her set at Schubas, she sings, "I know there is much more to me than thinking about you / I've got a lot to give, I know that this is true." There's a push and pull between subordinating herself entirely to her love and asserting her independent value. These themes aren’t new, but they bear revisiting; Burch’s take on them is skillful and moving.
Burch continues her US tour supporting Sallie Ford through April, before heading to Europe in May and June.