If Reverend Billy
had become a singer instead of a preacher, he’d have sounded like Scott H.
Biram. Or if one could transform the latent energy emanating from the iconic
Johnny Cash “flippin’ the bird” photograph into sound, it would come out
something like Biram’s more righteously angry material. In Biram’s world where
country/blues/gospel meets punk, telling the world to fuck off comes as
naturally as warning someone off the Devil.
Day,” the centerpiece from Something’s Wrong/Lost Forever, he’s like a
Pentecostal preacher who won’t end his sermon even though the church is on
fire; think Robert Duvall in The Apostle making the cops wait for him to
finish before they haul him off to jail. Biram rails against a world populated
mainly by lying, greedy hucksters: “I got a mind to decline/rubbin’ elbows with
you swine/or whatever fuckin’ book it is you’re tryin’ to sell/Yeah you
can shove it up your ass and go to hell.” He paints an apocalyptic vision where
people run screaming away from the Devil in a world that has become a vast
wasteland of sin. His vocals are intentionally recorded to sound like they’re
coming through a bullhorn or microphones that are breaking up and this quality
adds to the sense of urgency. This all rides on top of Biram’s distorted,
flat-picked country rhythm guitar and occasional sloppy lead playing.
It’s easy to
see/hear Biram as a comedic caricature or a talented, slightly paranoid mental
patient escapee with a mild case of Tourette’s Syndrome. This view is
encouraged by Biram’s cryptic inclusion of his taped phone message to a friend
in which he desperately begs for rescue from being tied down to a bed in the
hospital. If he is comic or paranoid at times, he’s still tapped into a very
original and artful vein and comes off as genuinely committed to his music.
Underneath the laughs, anger, and grandstanding are real observations and
issues: Racism, Commercialism, Religion. He’s daring you to get past the
artifice and surface layers. No – it’s a double dare.
He’s also put a
lot of work into his guitar playing. While his lead playing is sloppy (not
always a bad thing), his rhythm playing and country blues finger picking are
very strong. His solo guitar intro to “Hard Time” essentially draws the
listener a road map from his early country blues influences to his own
souped-up, iconoclastic 21st century interpretation. And Biram’s singing is
generally not subtle but it’s full of conviction. Biram’s fine blues
lyric on “Hard Time” echoes Hendrix’s “Hear My Train A Comin'”: “Gonna take my
time baby/Get right outta here/I’ll be rakin’ in the money/Sometime late next
year/You’ll be sittin’ at the dinner table/Wonderin’ why I ain’t here.” Biram
has a tendency to occasionally get ahead of his own accompaniment. This leads
to a push and pull of rhythm and form – a back and forth of catching up and
falling behind. Time becomes more elastic and the tunes become more alive and
singular. This is something solo artists are able to do without causing a train
wreck and many early blues artists had this same tendency. Their music was not
a slave to time.
Biram is at his
best when he is most brazen. But there are original tunes on Something’s
Wrong/Lost Forever which are closer to straight country or folk writing.
“Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue” is the best of these. But in the face of
the wild, original strength of the coarser material these songs comes off as
pale shadows. They make the recording slightly uneven, but they make up far
less than half the record and are still decent songs.
mix their art, message, and image with such craft and thoroughness that they
pass over into a type of mythic state. The line drawn in the sand isn’t there
for them and they sift from being merely an ‘artist’ into a larger than life
character in the public’s mind. Tom Waits, Andy Kaufman, Klaus Kinski, Woody
Allen, Bjork, Reverend Billy. These performers’ personas have crossed over to
the other side. They float in our consciousness like classic literary
characters transformed into blown-up representations of a perceived archetype:
eccentricity, madness, soulfulness, beauty, etc… Biram isn’t as accomplished as
the aforementioned artists yet, but in some ways he seems to be on a similar
path. Biram’s perceived archetype: Redneck Motherfucker.
process doesn’t make these artists any less ‘real’ than any others. And at
some point the persona detaches and has nearly a life of its own. Its creation
isn’t even necessarily intentional on the artist’s part (though it can be).
It’s simply due to their particular mix of art, message, and image – and how
that is received by the public and media. It’s neither inherently a good or bad
thing – though it can be both.
The three cover
tunes on Something’s Wrong/Lost Forever were all written by classic
early blues icons: Big Bill Broonzy, Elder Roma Wilson, and H. Ledbetter
(Leadbelly). Biram seems blissfully unaware of the supposed cultural ownership
of music by the early black blues singers and the anger and bitterness that can
be stirred up when it’s perceived as being misappropriated or co-opted. Or
maybe this Lone Star State,
good ol’ boy motherfucker just doesn’t give a flyin’ fuck.
Tracks: “Ain’t It A
Shame,” “Judgement Day,” “Hard Time” JOHN DWORKIN