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A Breath of Fresh Americana

Courtney Eckerle | Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bhi Bhiman is not what he appears to be. There aren’t many surprises left in the Americana and folk genres, but his recent full-length release, simply titled “Bhiman,” is one of them.

The slow stew of rambling tales and characters with Bhiman’s striking voice and John Hurt’s guitar-picking skills paint a vision of an artist who grew up outside of 1890s Appalachia.

It combines with modern world references (Wal-Mart and kimchee) to make his music an odd choice but fantastically unique. Bhiman’s record company touts the second-generation Sri Lankan-American based out of San Francisco as the Sri Lankan Woody Guthrie, which sounds just odd enough to work.

His lyrics show a keen observational eye and a sharp, funny wit, such as with “Ballerina”, which is reminiscent of Johnny Cash and June Carter’s hit tune “Jackson.” But instead of singing, “we got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout,” he blithely croons, “we got married in a Wal-Mart, down by the Wrangler jeans.”

A modern day folk song could take place nowhere else, a fact Bhiman celebrates. It continues, “I killed a guy in Texas, stole my grandma’s Hyundai/Now our faces are on the magazine.”

The album is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. His songs are colorful and powerfully woven narratives about lovable rednecks, railroad urchins and jilted lovers.

Bhiman is masterful at blending the woeful and melancholy with laughter and light. In “Kimchee Line,” he mixes a cowboy campfire tune with lyrics about North Korean forced labor. It’s a great example of his almost imperceptible, but astute social voice that pervades most of the album.

In “Crime of Passion”, a woeful tale about a lover’s cheating heart goes, “my baby’s with that man again/I thought that they was through/But now she’s found a beaucoup love and here my heart lies ashin’/Oh Lord where were you/In my crime of passion.”

“Mexican Wine” is a quick (it’s a little over a minute long) song of fun instrumentals, which blends quickly into the complimentary “Kimchee Line” with its heartbreakingly quirky lyrics. “Atlatl” has a fantastic twang to it with lines like, “we jumped in the truck with the cluckin’ mucky duck.”

“Guttersnipe” is perhaps the strongest instrumentals on the album, over six minutes long and worth every second. It’s the kind of song that immediately makes you realize you’ve made the right musical purchase. “Life’s Been Better” is a mournful closing farewell on the album, slipping by like a lazy day on a river.

Bhiman has been well known and respected in his local Bay area for years, but with this recent release he is finally earning the kind of national recognition his music demands. In a music industry that burns and churns artists as flavors of the month, Bhiman’s album has created a sound that will last. His arresting voice, simple tunes and enchanting lyrics make “Bhiman” the most exciting Americana album out this year.