[20 February 2014]
Normally, I scoff at the designation “one-man band” because it sounds an awful lot like a cheap marketing maneuver, but listening to Scott H. Biram gives me pause. Recognizing that critics have said as much before about his work, I’ll say it again: Scott H. Biram (and this includes Nothin’ But Blood) sounds more like a demented mixtape of Doc Watson, Mance Lipscomb, and a couple of Slayer demos than a single man. Oh, and most of it sounds like it was recorded coming over a car radio. This singularly schizoid approach is so jarring that I found myself checking my iPod to make sure that I hadn’t somehow left it on shuffle.
Needless to say, it takes a few listens for Biram to come into focus. He’s a brazenly individualistic artist who knows what he likes and plays it. He likes blues, folk, and heavy metal and he’s got no qualms about deploying variants of all three genres in his own work.
But it’s not really so cut and dried as just admiring disparate genres and then heaping them together. Perhaps against my better judgment, I’ll throw Ryan Adams out there for comparison. Another roots-based musician (though more country than blues), Adams, like Biram, has an avowed interest in metal. (Those fascinated by Ryan’s strange affection (or affectation) should check out his 2008 space-metal concept album Orion.) The Biram fans out there boiling over at such a rash comparison should hold on a second. Consiously, I’m making the mistake of framing the artist-genre relationship as the same in both instances. Adams, as talented as he is, never seems like much more than an enthusiastic poser. Biram, on the other hand, imitates no one.
Not sure what I mean by that digressive comparison? Think about it through this anecdote: on the road home from a gig in 2003, Biram was involved in a head-on collision with a semi—his bones broken, his insides mangled. But just a month later (and a week out of the hospital) Biram was already back onstage, albeit sitting in a wheelchair with an IV spooling out of his arm. Therein lies the difference, more like the gulf, between Biram and, well, just about everyone else out there.
That’s a whole lot of hemming and hawing to make a pretty standard point: this man really feels the music that he plays. His take on Willie Dixon’s adultery anthem “Backdoor Man” is more ribald than you ever thought the song could have been, sung in this grizzled, lecherous tone. For some bold contrast, take “Never Comin’ Home”, a convincing blend of Doc Watson and Red Headed Stranger-era Willie Nelson. For further confusion, try out Biram’s menacing cover of Mance Lipscomb’s “Alcohol Blues”, which finds him spitting the lyrics with such violence that you’d swear you can almost feel saliva arcing from out of the speakers. And then there’s the absurd humor of “Nam Weed”, where a veteran reminisces about the “good times back in Vietnam”. About the only time you’ll ever hear that sentiment aired?
Overall, the effect of the album is mostly jarring. Gusty, but jarring. It is music that moves me more to fascination than appreciation. Biram’s best work remains his earlier and grittier stuff, in particular his first two albums with Bloodshot, 2005’s The Dirty Old One Man Band and 2006’s Graveyard Shift. While it might sound slightly hilarious to suggest that this latest album is “over-produced”, I can’t help but feel that Biram is better off when he sounds like he’s coming through a dilapidated car stereo. The dirty sound approximates the mystical sonic distance you get when listening through the noise on old Charley Patton recordings. The new tracks, especially the harder hitting ones, like “Around the Bend”, come across as slightly silly with their essentially smooth surfaces; it’s not that I don’t like the song, it just deserves a rougher touch. Be a little rougher around the edges, Scott.