Bhi Bhiman is hailed by his record company as "the Sri Lankan Woody Guthrie." He's second generation; his immigrant parents named him after Bhima, a central character in an ancient Indian text called the Mahabharata. But he grew up in St. Louis, an ordinary grunge-loving American schmo. He certainly doesn't dote on his heritage in his music, which is pure Americana folk -- the most exciting I've heard in a long while.
This question has been asked numerous times in recent weeks: If "the protestor" was Time's Person of the Year for 2011, where are the new protest songs? The answer is complicated, but it's also very early. We've only seen the word "occupy" capitalized for four short months. No doubt songs are being scribbled right now with various "eat the rich" themes, but as with all movements the most lasting legacies stem from those artists with less didactic approaches -- songwriters who fold the tension of the times into mundane tales of life and love. "Bhiman" is a record brimming with easily recognizable dilemmas, both economic and romantic, poured out through confident, simple musicianship and one of the most arresting voices you'll hear all year.
A social conscience does not demand a one-track mind. It's in this sense that Bhi can wear the Guthrie comparisons with ease. Shifting effortlessly between caustic humor and poignant revelation, and strumming his acoustic guitar with Richie Havens finesse ("Guttersnipe") and rare Leo Kottke flash ("Mexican Wine"), he opens this sophomore album ("The Cookbook" debuted in 2008) singing the blues of a railroad urchin who ain't got no home in this world anymore ("Guttersnipe"). By the end of the record, he subtly skewers consumer culture in a contemporary Bonnie & Clyde tale from the point of view of a dancer on a crime spree ("Ballerina"): "We got married in a Walmart / down by the franks and beans / killed a guy in Texas, stole my grandma's Hyundai / now our faces on the magazine." Pretty Boy Floyd's kids would dig this chick.
His songs of love especially penetrate every organ on the strength of his voice -- an otherworldly siren call, creamy and round, authentic and authoritarian, an androgynous mystery that's doomed to a calendar year of Nina Simone and Bill Withers comparisons. Over the dancing guitar verses of "Time Heals," Bhi uses his vocal instrument against the rhythm to impress upon us the determination in his quest for love; the refrain lurches almost to a halt, echoing his lyrical lament -- "Time they say heals a broken heart / but time has stood still since we've been apart" -- in a sluggish tempo that nearly stands still and always breaks your heart. The pastoral daydream of "Take What I'm Given," all cooing harmony over breezy acoustic guitar and piano, casts a man's yearning to "live out my days like a loose ball of yarn" against the reality of the urban rat race, concluding, "Man wasn't made to be this tightly wound."
"Bhiman," as Samuel Johnson wrote of Shakespeare, unites "the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind but in one composition." Bhi bemoans the fate of a North Korean forced laborer ("While the leader's getting fatter / I feel my stomach bleed," in the vegetative "Kimchee Line") and calls out the airs of class put on by an American free laborer ("What you talking about, business trips? / You work at the mall," in "Eye on You"). The love songs are sweetly melancholy, the socially conscious songs are hilariously biting. Wholly engaging.
p.s. In concert, he's been doing the Staple Singers' "Freedom Highway," and he's said before that "Pops and Mavis are better than Robert Plant and Jimmy Page." I eagerly await his adoration from a Chicago crowd. Looks like the first such opportunity is an opening slot March 25 at Schubas.
In other socially conscious music news ...
-- Ani DiFranco has worked for two decades at a furious pace, often churning out an album a year. She labored three years on her latest, though -- "Which Side Are You On?" (Righteous Babe) -- and it shows. Labored is certainly the word for the album's predominantly morbid music, esoteric lyrical criticisms and surprisingly dull musicianship. But the title track is worth a download for its rumbling insistence on choosing sides, backed by Pete Seeger and a children's choir.
-- Was there ever any doubt this would materialize? "Occupy This Album: A Compilation of Music By, For and Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the 99 Percent" aims to inject some cash into the movement via topical songs contributed by an intriguing range of artists. Here's the complete reported list: Crosby & Nash, Yoko Ono, Debbie Harry, Devo, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Tom Morello, Michael Moore, Thievery Corporation, Immortal Technique, Joan Baez & James McMurtry & Steve Earle, MOGWAI, Warren Haynes, DJ Logic, Ladytron, Lucinda Williams, The Guthrie Family, Third Eye Blind, Toots and the Maytals, Yo La Tengo, Rain Phoenix, Our Lady Peace, Aeroplane Pageant, Chroma, Cosmonaut, Global Block, Harry Hayward, Jay Samel, Jennie Arnau, Joel Rafael, Lloyd Cole, Matt Pless, Mike + Ruthy, Mike Rimbaud, My Pet Dragon, Mystic Bowie, Stephan Said, Tao Seeger, Taj Weekes, Thee Oh Sees, Julie B. Bonnie, Ace Reporter, Black Dragon, Joseph Arthur, Loudon Wainwright III, Danger Field, Richard Barone, Ronny Elliot, Los Cintron, The Middle Eight, Dylan Chambers, Alex Emanuel and Junkyard Empire.