As with a singer like Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) or Iris Dement, what strikes you first about Bhi Bhiman’s music is his voice — a keening, gender-neutral yawp that’s as earthy as it is ethereal, as puckish as it is wise. “We got married in a Walmart / Down by the Wrangler jeans,” he chirps in “Ballerina,” retooling the opening line of June Carter and Johnny Cash’s 1966 hit, “Jackson.” From there he unfurls a bloody yet riotous yarn, replete with allusions to Hank Williams Jr. and George Foreman grills, about a fugitive dancer-turned-murderer and her husband and partner in crime.
The press release that came with the review copy of “Bhiman” likens the artist and his latter-day busking to Woody Guthrie, Randy Newman and John Prine and there’s a lot to that: wry and subversive, the writing and performances here are first-rate, folk-based and undeniably unique. “Kimchee Line” borrows bits of melody from Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line” to animate the laughing-to-keep-from-crying lament of a North Korean wage slave toiling in a kimchi factory. In the droll “Life’s Been Better” he whines, “Life’s been better, I’ve had more cheddar / But all my feta’s run dry.”
The son of Sri Lankan immigrants, Bhiman incorporates elements of country, soul and West African pop into his originals, music that, no matter how cheeky, betrays a mordant social-consciousness. Witness “Guttersnipe,” where, slipping on the shoes of an orphaned hobo riding the rails, he confesses, “I steal my meals when all else fails.”
“Guttersnipe,” “Ballerina,” “Kimchee Line”