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An up-and-coming bluesman in 2006 usually has two fates available to him: be musically unadventurous enough to eventually land a beer commercial or be self-consciously wacky enough to land on a hipster blues label. You can blame public radio, the Internet, or the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System for this turn of events: The Old Weird America that used to spit out freaky folk musicians by the Smithsonian compilation–ful died when the isolated communities where sonic visionaries could remain uninfluenced by their contemporaries became hopelessly plugged-in. These days, it’s nearly impossible for artists working within such a venerable genre to honor their elders while finding their own voices.
Scott H. Biram hails from Austin, Texas, a town hardly immune to the siren call of the record industry’s conventions, but the way he’s crossbred blues, rock, psychedelia, punk, and metal suggests the only voices he’s listening to are those inside his head. Graveyard Shift is raw—nasty, funky, fucked up, “Who blew out the PA?” raw—and its warped vocals, hardscrabble guitars, and relentless four-counts on what is credited as a “homemade footstomp board” would appropriately horrify tourists in blues mausoleums like Memphis or New Orleans.
Not that Biram’s got time to worry about freaking out purists—on Graveyard Shift’s opener, the unsettling “Been Down Too Long,” he spews an existential laundry list as reminiscent of PiL-era John Lydon as John Lee Hooker: “Most times I can’t sleep at night/I just drive the highway up and down/Sometimes I can’t eat a bite at all/Sometimes I bite off more than I can chew.” The sentiment is as old as the blues itself, though while everyone from Mississippi guitarist J.B. Lenoir to the Doors has taken a crack at singing about actually having the blues, Biram’s rendering is remarkable, his voice punished by Beasties-worthy distortion while a vicious, garage-punk chord progression threatens to leap out of the speakers and set things right, forcefully if necessary.
The no less abrasive, downright Gothic “No Way” has lyrics that are pure Freud: “There ain’t no way/I’m going to put my foot in there/That big black pool I’ve been dreaming about,” he sings, his grappling with the hex of sex as dark and powerful as the imagery in Leadbelly’s “In the Pines.” Still, Biram’s melancholy doesn’t smother “Lost Case of Being Found,” an existential musing about lost love in a “shit-ass town” that scans like Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in ballad form. Biram even has fun with “Have No Fun,” a wry thumbnail sketch of the one that got away. “She’s gone/And it’s a cryin’ shame” may be ham-handed, but the song’s casual humor and breezy structure pluck at heartstrings without snapping them.
When Biram does overwhelm, the culprit is sheer over-the-top machismo. After all, we’re talking about a man who played a show less than a month after being hit by a tractor-trailer as well as the guy who founded the First Church of the Ultimate Fanaticism—not sure what that is, but it seems to involve whiskey. “Reefer Load”’s country honk is catchy, but do we need a tacky, overly dude-ish tale of a trucker puffin’ la “from Chicago down to San Antone” so far into an LP? “Church Babies,” which calls bullshit on fundamentalist Christian breeding, is similarly misguided; references to “jism” suggest he’s not all that interested in making his case to anyone who disagrees.
Still, there’s an uninhibited sense of fun on the Graveyard Shift that transcends argument. Blooze nerds might take issue with Biram’s tossed-salad approach to the genre, but if anyone can save this particular music from trad bores like Eric Clapton, or equally tedious postmodernists like Bob Log III, it’ll be this “dirty old one man band.”
At least when it comes to reverence for old music, Greg Graffin’s Cold as the Clay has something in common with Graveyard Shift, but the Bad Religion frontman’s attempt to make a folk record sounds clinical and calculated instead, as if he assumed banjos and lyrics that name-check Civil War vets magically turn any song into an old-timey number. The LP has a few bright spots, but it’s overproduced by Graffin’s Bad Religion bandmate Brett Gurewitz. Surprisingly—folk fetishists’ insistence that modern music referencing pre-WWII material sound as if it were recorded before World War II be damned—this isn’t its downfall. No, Graffin’s problem is heart. He’s gone all Tin Man on us.
The title track, a Graffin original on an effort that’s roughly half old-time numbers, lays bare Cold as the Clay’s failures in microcosm. Here, we find stock images of neglected workers “panning for gold, picking for dimes…wasting away, blood sweat and grime.” The singer’s striving earnestness and overly sensitive vocal delivery, however, are way too self-consciously naive for the political points he’s trying to make. Artists don’t need to be suffering proles to make proletarian music, but they can’t sound like they’re trying too hard, either. The title track, replete with wanky guitars and leaden drums courtesy of the Weakerthans, is vapid, hammy, midtempo sludge—mediocre rock dressed up as folk.
Graffin fares better with other people’s material. His ethereal take on the gospel standard “Talk About Suffering” is as close to haunting as Cold as the Clay gets, perhaps because of fellow would-be folkster Jolie Holland’s able backups, but perhaps because it’s almost impossible to screw up such a powerful song. “Willie Moore” may not be hardcore, but Graffin manages to inject the ballad with a modicum of the energy he brings to his rock band. Even the lilting “Omie Wise,” a drown-the-pregnant-girlfriend scenario, is passable, if only for effusive, Celtic charm.
But then there’s “Rebel’s Goodbye,” the strangest Confederate group-grope since the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which rings as hollow as the album’s opener, the vaguely noirish “Don’t Be Afraid to Run.” There’s just no there here—why is Griffin eulogizing Jefferson Davis? What exactly is he running from? Even “Highway,” by far the best track on Cold as the Clay, lacks folk’s minimalist, yet infinitely expressive lexicon. This meditation on old age loses any poignancy once Graffin belts out a chorus worthy of a freshman psych major: “The highway of denial!” he yelps.
That kind of geeky language mildews Cold as the Clay’s core. Graffin grew up in rural Wisconsin, singing a lot of the standards on this disc, but he seems a lot more than half a country away from this background every time he opens his mouth. That a wealthy punk-rock musician such as Graffin can’t talk jes-folks isn’t a surprise, but it’s a big disconnect from the medium—under no circumstances can he capture good folk’s idiosyncrasies. To invoke the Old Weird America, an artist needs to be…well, if not old, then at least weird. Biram senses this, maybe because he’s too messed up to consciously articulate it. He builds his record organically from a hodgepodge of found materials around him. Graffin’s Cold as the Clay is an apt title, a chilling collection of 1s and 0s that, in every sense of the word, is without a country. CP