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Music Review: Scott H. Biram – Graveyard Shift

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Scott H. Biram’s Graveyard Shift is certainly one of the best among the many fine albums Bloodshot Records has put out over the years.

Biram’s wild country-blues-punk whirls fast and dirty like a Texas Tornado in your ears, full of the sound and the fury. On some songs Biram partly reminds me of the stripped down garagey blues rock the Flat Duo Jets once mastered. But then Biram adds a fuzzy-gospel rhythm and response-vocals to his own un-gargled calls sung through an antique microphone.

He even experiments with a death metal hybrid on “Church Babies,” which while interesting in terms of the album’s breadth and a kind of expressionism at which Biram excels, is a sound that really pushes my threshold of music tolerance. But one marvels at his barely controlled one-man-band energy a la Hasil Adkins, which is legendary live, but even comes through on the recording. On the other hand, a number of slower numbers figure in the bag, almost all prodded along by a strong acoustic guitar and a stomping left foot (he has amplified a “stomping board” as his percussion section).

Witness “Been Down too Long.” This ditty injects gospel into the blues punk mix. And Biram’s sound has a distinctive rural devotion about it. Bibles are a motif running through many of his songs. Witness again “Lost Case of Being Found,” which of course plays on the biblical parable of the “prodigal son,” who after leaving the family farm and passing a fair amount of time whoring and doping comes home and finds the Lord. This one is followed by “Only Jesus (gonna set you free).” George Jones’s “Please, Jesus, Please Take the Devil Out of Me,” haunts that one, which travels at about the same tempo, but like most of his songs, has an acoustic guitar driving the vocals along. His influences range from chain gang recordings to Bill Monroe and various punk.

Biram’s subjects come from the underbelly of rural America, where whiskey, Jesus, hard work, and heartache are common bedfellows. Documenting that world, Biram sounds like insurgent country’s William Faulkner. This Kingsbury, TX, native is hardly another recovering punk rocker discovering creative opportunity in twang. Nor is he a whiney indie singer-songwriter or pretentious college-educated indie rocker from the suburbs (which I admit to liking equally well, and even though Biram has been to college). He’s the real deal. He’s the American work ethic. He’s punk DIY. He does his own artwork for his albums, the first three of which are self-released, makes his own fan t-shirts, and so forth.  

Biram's style belches the heartland. Yet this sound is likely often too radical for that very heartland (like Jesus himself!), as is the majority of insurgent country that Bloodshot Records boldly unleashes on the many mostly urban ears who hear it creeping into the frayed edges of their indie scenes. Make no mistake; this guy has been to hell and back and has earned the right to climb on stage, preach and rock. We’re talking about a guy who in spring 2003 collided head on with an 18-wheeler on a highway near San Antonio. Result: broken legs, crushed foot, and a broken arm. Yet, six weeks later he wheeled himself into Austin’s prestigious Continental Club and started stomping away, still attached to an IV.

This guy is scrappy, and he brings a kind of ambiguously playful punk combativeness to his shows, recalling the spitting contests the Sex Pistols used to have with their audiences. Not really a surprise: Biram has done his punk time, too. Finally, when a Pitchforkmedia.com reviewer gave him his only scathing review, Biram wrote back in
refutation, which can be found circulating around the internet.

Like Hasil Adkins to whom he’s sometimes compared, the stories that surround Biram start to give the guy a bit of a lunatic-demigod streak. But hey, that’s interesting to us more predictable folks, and is why we read Faulkner and Bukowski, and watch Oz, The Sopranos, Ken Loach, and Larry Clark films. Guess what, Sunshine? The world is also a dirty stinking mess. But I reckon it’s an unquestionable pleasure seeing artists who are bent on showing us the dirty, ugly things in the most fascinating and even strangely pretty ways. Biram does that dirty deed with  nearly unparalleled flair.

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About Jayson Harsin