Scott H. Biram. The man Just. Doesn't. Give. A fuck. And it shows. The so-called "Dirty One-Man Band" has been playing scuzzy Americana and bluegrass with a punk fervor and ethos since the mid-nineties, but he won his fame as a solo act with an old-fashioned mic and a hollow-body Gibson. This is a guy who built his reputation by surviving a crash in his truck, then performing from his wheelchair, IV's and all. Most of his music is aggressive and angry and heavily steeped in a Depression-era (and earlier) folk and blues tradition that used music was cheap therapy for life's crushing problems. His albums are mostly filled with tales of loss, desperation, deprivation, in short, the darker side of life.
But sometimes even someone like Scott H. Biram discovers a riff so magical and melancholy that even he can't help but crank it out, pen some fitting lyrics and then get the hell out of the way. When done right, it's a beautiful thing (see, "The Passenger") reminding us that great music is often compelling due to its simplicity. "Wildside" is a perfect example of that, a great intro to Scott H. Biram, even though it sounds little like the rest of his songs. It appeared on his 2009 Bloodshot album, appropriately titled Something's Wrong / Lost Forever and it manages to meld that glass three-quarters empty outlook with a sliver of hope and an series of power chords that would make most ax-men salivate. It's a song of optimism that pessimists can get down to and vice-versa.
The first thing you hear is that slightly distorted Gibson crunch tearing into the back your brain with a aural texture that's almost physical. It's a modest take on a riff that will be repeated, embellished and nearly exploded over the next four minutes but it creates just the right mood. The guitar's stately progression and ringing qualities evokes the feeling of a cool fall wind blowing through the trees, something familiar and potentially chilling, but, at the same time, imbued with a comforting familiarity.
"I've been thinking 'bout the good times, baby / and the way things could been" Biram sings, as if to match the music's emotional resonance with lyrics equally full of sadness, tinged with just a little warmth. He tells the story of a woman who, after giving him some great times, left him flat. Part of the reason might be Scott's own immaturity as he complains that "we coulda stayed crazy, baby / 'stead of just bein' friends" while at the same time noting that she's gone and left him for "the good side" and that "things have been better for you" but he can't help but want to recreate the past.
Throughout the song, it's never made clear whether Biram's a free-spirited bon vivant who brought joy to his love, or just a spurned ex wallowing in the bathos of his rejection. The singer is willing to have some fun at his own expense, teasing her to "rub it my face, why don't you, baby / about your other man"? But he keeps coming back to the idea that, while she may have moved away, she hasn't moved on. His insistence on a cyclical relationship is what dominates the song, as he can't get past insisting that the woman will inevitably return to his "wildside".
In the song's breakdown, he makes his most compelling case. As he sings, the guitar tone shatters and fragments almost psychedelically, showing off how Biram's fanatical studio devotion pays off and turns a one-man band into something that sounds much greater. The power of the solo is also heard in the lyrics as he talks about how his woman has "sobered up, but [her] plans fell through" and defiantly tells her "the old drunk wind is blowing again" before the song disolves into a brief, meandering but effective solo. As attempts at wooing go, it's not much, but he's clearly giving it all he's got.
The song ends with a reprise of the first chorus backed by even more distorted guitar, the tone of which almost threatens to degenerate into a laser sound-effect. He finally sings "I know you had to straighten your shit out / but that old tide's coming back in again". His case isn't much improved, but, like the guitar playing, it's been growing in force and emotion for almost four minutes at this point and it somehow seems more believeable. Hell, he even wins points for the insouciance of asking her to "give a little to the backslide", clearly willing to admit that she'd be reverting, but reverting to something better, or at least more free.
And that's all you need from this song. Biram's guitar ends up breaking down into shreds of sound as he pounds out his riff with plenty of blusey asides for the remainder of the singing before goes out on a minor-key riff that is almost as playfully self-mocking as anything he's sung. It's a song that could be epic, but instead is just memorable. It could be pathetic but instead it's sweet. Basically, it contains within itself the seeds of being something great, but also flaws that could fatally doom it. Scott H. Biram manages to play these traits off each other just the right, leaving you with something memorable and human. You see what you want to see in the lyrics but whatever else you take from it, the tune will be in your head. It's a song that sounds like an old favorite halfway through your first listen. It's not groundbreaking or profound or anything but it reminds you that it sure is fun to give a little to the backslide, ooh yeah.
He also just released a new album, Bad Ingredients, which you can get here.