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|Maturity and Grace in Rough Packages: Scott H. Biram and Lydia Loveless, June 6 at RIBCO|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Written by Jeff Ignatius|
|Thursday, 17 May 2012 08:47|
RIBCO’s June 6 show features two Bloodshot Records artists, and there the surface similarities end. Scott H. Biram is a 38-year-old one-man-band road dog from Texas whose music draws from the blues and hard rock, and Lydia Loveless is a 21-year-old singer/songwriter from Ohio pulling from country and punk.
“We’re quite a bit different in our musical styles,” Biram said in a phone interview earlier this month, “but as far as our attitudes go, it’s pretty close.”
They both write and record quickly, yet their songs match an inherent urgency with unpretentious and unforced maturity and grace – nestled among lots of rough edges. And they share a boldness of musical personality.
An Easter-Egg Hunt
Biram labels himself the “dirty old one-man band,” and he’s also called himself a “bionic redneck” because of the amount of metal in his body. (A truck accident in 2003 “broke every limb in my body except for my left arm,” he has said. He was back on-stage a month later.) Those hint at his personality and musical style, but they also undersell him.
His stage setup involves his voice, his guitar, and a homemade “stomp box” with pickups that turn his feet into percussion instruments no matter how loud he’s playing. His recordings are polished to a degree, but the basic ingredients are the same, and the gruffness isn’t sanded away. With those basic tools, Biram is a hypnotic performer, like the bluesmen he obviously descends from.
His songwriting process is equal parts inspiration, distance, and collage. “I come up with an idea, and I’ll write a song in about 10 minutes or so,” he said. “And I get all the lyrics down, and then figure out the music, and I’ll record it real quick on my phone. And then I won’t even play it again for a few months. Then I’ll come back to it and have to re-learn it from my recording the day that I wrote it. ... It’s more like I’m listening to someone else play a song.”
For years, he said, he’s also pieced together songs, “scribbling down lyrics on pieces of paper and then leaving them around for me to find later on. Like an Easter-egg hunt.” He’ll then combine snippets that don’t naturally fit together. “The song itself doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense, but each part of it kind of draws a picture,” he said. “It’s just kind of like a slideshow.”
It’s probably fair to call Biram’s songwriting method haphazard, and the term applies to his albums as well. Take Bad Ingredients, released in October. Biram said that when he returned from a European tour last spring, his label and management told him it would be “in my best interest” to have a new album ready within a month.
The problem was that he only had six finished songs. He recorded another the day after his return to the States, and then he started going through old computer files – those songs he’d recorded quickly to make sure he wouldn’t forget them.
“Within about four hours,” he said, “I’d mixed down a whole bunch of other songs, and all of a sudden I had 23 songs finished and ready to go for a record.” The album ended up with 13 songs, with others available as bonus tracks.
It might sound as if Biram half-assed Bad Ingredients, but there’s something else going on, a philosophy “embedded in me,” he said: “I always feel like it’s important to release as much of my current music as I can when I’m recording, so that it doesn’t get lost. ... They need to be released close to the time when I wrote them so that they’re a record of what’s going on with me and my journey through songwriting and record production.”
More importantly, there’s no sense from listening to Bad Ingredients that it was tossed-off. It’s a well-rounded package that balances straightforward blues (“Born in Jail,” “Have You Ever Loved a Woman?”) with more-produced and -varied songs. “Wind Up Blind” is Southern-rock howl, and “Open Road” is dusty and meditative with some Western reverb on the guitar. “Victory Song” is a galloping guitar workout that shows Biram’s skills in DIY production and arrangement.
And the acoustic blues of opener “Just Another River” displays his skill as a lyricist, nailing a metaphor for a discarded person: “Guess I was just another river / That flowed into your sea.”
A Defiant Mission Statement
The RIBCO show will be part of the second tour featuring both Biram and Loveless, and the elder artist, in plain but true words, captured a good deal of the junior’s appeal: “It was good to hear a girl singin’ every night that can actually belt out the voice ... and not sing all nasally. ... It’s cool to see somebody that young writing good songs and out on the road already. I didn’t get on the road until I was 25, and she’s 21.”
Loveless isn’t fond of hearing it, but she’s clear kin with Neko Case, in the sense of starting in country music and having a giant, brassy voice and full confidence in it. (“I’m kind of the horn section of any band I’m in,” Case has said.)
Outside of giving a basic reference point, though, the comparison wilts in the face of Loveless’ second album, last year’s Indestructible Machine. It clearly announces the arrival of a distinct and powerful singer and songwriter.
She explained in a phone interview earlier this month that her first album – The Only Man – was mostly recorded when she was 17, with her inexperience working against her. “It was kind of weird to go into the studio with actual producers and feel like I was maybe wasting people’s time,” she said. “I think it turned out well. It just didn’t turn out the way I would have preferred. I definitely knew it wasn’t going to be exactly what I wanted, just because I wasn’t making the decisions, and no one really listens to 17-year-old girls.”
Indestructible Machine, she said, was recorded with her own band and “represents me a lot better than I may have been represented in the past. It’s definitely a lot more rock-and-roll.”
Loveless’ assertive, direct voice is magnetic by itself on the album, but her songs are gems, too – without a dud in the batch. The opening two tracks are a formidable combination punch, with “Bad Way to Go” kicking things off seemingly mid-song, banjo and guitars at punk tempo. “Can’t Change Me” is impossibly catchy roots rock, with the defiant chorus – “That’s going to change how you feel about me, baby / But it won’t change me” – seemingly a mission statement.
Those two songs would be the high points on many a record, but the singer/songwriter has plenty more bullets. As fierce as she often is, she is also capable of lovely vulnerable moments, as on the nakedly emotional singing of “Learn to Say No.”
“Jesus Was a Wino” takes its cue from the cheerfully blasphemous title, an upbeat stomper that concisely takes down judgmental Christians in the comforting croon of the chorus: “And if people knew / They would look down on you. / Don’t they know that it’s true / Jesus was a wino, too?”
And then there’s “Steve Earle,” in which the legendary singer/songwriter is fused with the real-life story of a high-on-himself local musician who stalked Loveless. In its unflattering first lines, the song dispels any notion of a warm fantasy: “He read an article that said I like to do cocaine / And now he comes to all my shows and says if I need some he’ll pay.” And from there it’s detailed and desperate, touching on power, age, and sex dynamics without ever losing its cheeky sense of humor.
When asked about the origins and process of “Steve Earle” and “Jesus Was a Wino,” Loveless didn’t offer much insight. And talking about songwriting generally, she said she works fast: “Most of my songs sort of write themselves. ... I don’t like laboring over a song.”
Her reticence is okay by me. The songs speak plenty loudly.
Scott H. Biram and Lydia Loveless will perform on Wednesday, June 6, at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue in Rock Island). The show starts at 8:30 p.m., and tickets (RIBCO.com) are $10 in advance and $13 the day of the show.
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