[8 December 2011]
Scott Biram’s Something’s Wrong/Lost Forever was a powerful album of music ranging from field holler spiritual to stompin’ blues punk; abundantly well-written, and bearing that unmistakable Biram panache of gravel, blood and tears. A song like “Still, Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue” is exemplary. As an anthem, it is to a contemporary underground garage, blues, alt-country crowd what Paul Simon’s otherwise praiseworthy G-rated effort of a similar title was to the Big Chill generation. How goddamned frightening it must be for artists to create something that good and a year later be faced with a follow up. Two years later, Bad Ingredients, Biram’s fourth album for Bloodshot records, is by some standards his best so far.
I don’t mean to imply that Bad Ingredients is an album encompassing numerous genres from blues to hip-hop and ska. However, it is the most musically diverse album Biram has produced to date. That itself doesn’t necessarily make a great album, of course. Yet, it is a great album. You find the expected country blues convergence of Jimmie Rodgers, Lightning Hopkins, and Townes Van Zandt with punkier stompin blues à la Hasil Adkins. Yet there are a couple of numbers that take a turn (even if not a plunge) towards psych-tinged bluesy Zepplinesque rock. Add to that a great R&B number reminiscent of Andre Williams, and you have a richly different Biram product.
Some artists’ sound meets their lyrics only by force or chance. Biram is not among them. His concerns about the world and, judging from interviews, his life, fit the two music styles between which he oscillates: country-blues and punk. People deal with life’s frustrations and resulting hostility by falling into depression, yelling at people, raging on the road or talking to a therapist. In addition, some musicians like Biram traditionally go to those two musical poles, fast angry punk or slow, down-in-the dumps blues. What’s different about Biram is that he doesn’t just give you one or the other, and on this album there’s even more.
“Just Another River”, “Born in Jail”, “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” (a nice Lightin’ Hopkins cover), and “Black Creek Risin’” are all heavy, emotive blues numbers. “Open Road” and “Memories of You Sweetheart” are closer to country singer-songwriters Townes Van Zandt and John Anderson. But if the slower bluesy songs are just too, well, bluesy and downer for you, you can be delivered into lyrical denial during several top-shelf stompers. “Dontcha Lie to Me Baby” and “Killed a Chicken Last Night” are both blues-garage hellraisers, while “Victory Song”, “Wind Up Blind” and “Hang Your Head and Cry” are closer to slightly psyched-out, one-man-band classic rock.
“I Want My Mojo Back” and “Victory” are the two surprise standouts in quality and uniqueness, though there’s not a weak song on the entire album. I say “surprises” because they are neither the expected country blues nor the Hasil-Adkins, Black Flag-inspired stuff. “I Want My Mojo” is an R&B/hard-blues mix, complete with backup soul singers and Walter Daniels’ screeching saxophone. It’s a kind of Andre Williams meets Rufus Thomas and Jon Spencer gumbo. “Victory Song” is a goose-bumping haunted house of a track. Biram goes slightly psychedelic, with an echoing “Victory” and “freedom” to his patented semi-stomp in a middle bridge. “Victory” here sounds like a man’s battle with loneliness: “I’m gonna find a woman/I’ll tell ya how it’s gonna be/I’m gonna love her and she’s gonna love me..love, love, love…victory.” It sounds like he’s singing and playing in a canyon, accompanied by nothing and no one except hope. The track’s driving sound, though somewhat ominous, reflects a determined narrator. It’s catchy, even mesmerizing, worthy of heavy radio and ipod play.
Aside from a rare couple of awkward phrasings (as when he tries to force the syllables “I’ve been livin’ out of the back of a beat up ‘72 Ford” into an uncompromising time signature in “Broke Ass”, and it sounds more like Flight of the Conchords), the album is a strong lyrical effort, corresponding to Biram’s stock themes. “I’m just floatin’ around, no friend to call my own/ I’ve got to do what’s right, now people, and leave this place behind”: these are the first lines of the album, and they set the tone. The track to which they belong, “Just Another River” uses the metaphor of multiple rivers flowing into a sea to describe love and/or sex. It’s a kind of absurd universe, eternally perplexing: “Things fall on me sometimes/they penetrate my soul/I just keep drifting/I just don’t know,” he sings to an acoustic riff reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s cover of “Personal Jesus.” Bad luck and bewilderment—and we’re off.
In “Broke Ass”, Biram alternates from crass to more subtle poetry, underlining the fact that he’s not going to fulfill any redneck fantasies. The hombre does have a mouth on and a bad streak in him, but he also has an art degree and doesn’t believe every lunatic in the country should be able to tote a gun (check out his interviews). He’s not just a wild exception, either. He’s part of what makes up the US, Texas, and fans of country and blues. Instead of just chanting, “my ass is broke!” he tells us “I ain’t seen Ben Franklin in a month or two.” Then, “get on up, come on down, see the nicest piece of real estate to ever grace this down/She’s my baby, she’s my broken piece of ass…. Come on down and take a good long look at my bad dream”. It’s a weird brand of harsh affection the singer has for this “two dollar whore”. Hardly the “get on up” that James Brown or the Esquires were talking about. It’s not clear whether it’s his “woman” or his entire life is the “bad dream” we’re invited to “come on down and take a look at”.
“Open Road” has a western guitar tinge to it, which would make “Open Range” equally appropriate as a title. Reflecting the title of another great song from his last album, Biram sings, “I’ve been waitin’ for the judgment day so I’ll finally understand” and “getting tired of seekin’ answers, they’ll only let me down/Been drinking for forever, just can’t put it down.” A theme of movement (sometimes alcohol-assisted) as solace or at least transitory escape runs through many of these songs: “I never felt somethin’ like a warm, safe place ‘til I hit that open road.” This from a guy whose real-life tangle with a semi-truck gave him more metallic parts than the Bionic Man. The refrain is “Hit that open road.” It’s a kind of cowboy Buddhism. All of life is suffering; the only excuse for solace is loneliness and wandering. Or consider the album’s closer: “Hang Your Head and Cry”. Contrary to the title, it’s another mover. More like “bang your head and cry!” Come on, altogether now!
The slower, bluer numbers are meditative—and if you’re still wondering, what does he have to hang his head and cry about? Let’s not beat around the bush: loneliness, unrequited love, betrayal, being broke, having your legs broken and the bad luck of all of the former. The faster numbers, where we find him with a “devil may care” attitude toward speed limits (e.g. the insane confessional “I Killed a Chicken Last Night”), are the hostile amphetamines of punk adolescence that some of us will never lose, and for whom they will always be necessary, if not completely welcome in a world where on some days encountering just one more naive grinner will make us puke on the spot. At the risk of getting too cute, we cook with whatever ingredients are in the cupboard, no matter how bad they appear to those more fortunate. One rarely feels so much energy and solidarity in loneliness and despair than when one listens to Scott H. Biram’s music, not the least in Bad Ingredients.