It’s significant that Bhi Bhiman has hailed Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder as the two primary influences who started him writing his own songs. It’s most definitely in the direction of the latter that he turns for Rhythm & Reason, with its strong soulful streak. If it doesn’t actually sound like Stevie Wonder, then this second album from Bhi at least casts an eye back over the time when the former Motown child star and others, such as Marvin Gaye and the Temptations, walked off the hit factory floor to explore more album based music. With it came a social consciousness beefed up by the Civil Right Movement and allied to the sounds of Curtis Mayfield and The Staple Singers, both of whom are probably a better match for the music on offer here. Either way Bhiman’s songs have something to say, but all dressed up in the sweetest rootsy, folky soul sounds you could wish for.
As Bhimam has pinpointed, the position of polarisation is often the most potent place to start a story. Whether it’s the personal, as a relationship breaks down, or the political landscape of our increasingly divided nations, the same applies and he has a great gift for weaving the two into a seamless whole. Perhaps there’s an identification with the outsider looking in that comes with Bhiman’s family background, his parents having made the passage from Sri Lanka to the US. Previous interviews have touched on a family diaspora of uncles, aunts, cousins and more scattered through Australia, Canada, Africa, England and New Zealand. It’s almost an immediate global community, but with that, there must also be the doubts about moving to a foreign country, not to mention the sometimes hostile reception. Not everyone will have the welcome mat out.
That said Bhi seems to have grown up the all American boy, a creek dipping and baseball playing athlete. Perhaps that’s not entirely surprising given that his parents named Bhi and his brother Arjuna after two of the mythical Pandava siblings, who were heroic warriors in the epic, Hindu poem Mahabarata. Even so, Bhi took baseball to a highly competitive level, travelling internationally for tournaments. It was an injury at the age of 13 that side-lined him for six months, however, that saw Bhi pick up his brother’s guitar with serious intent and take his first steps into music making. Bhi took to the electic guitar and fuelled by hard rockers, ACDC, and the heavy metal sounds of Black Sabbath, he also started to explore the grunge scene and has since cited Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, another American with Indian Sub-continental roots, as an important inspirational figure.
It was on going to college in Santa Cruz that music started to get more serious for Bhi. He has described sitting in various cars, singing along to whatever was playing on the stereo at the top of his voice, until the encouragement of friends to do something with his obvious talent became too persuasive to ignore. He started writing his own songs and eventually formed the band Hippie Grenade, who became something of a cult hit around San Fransico, before eventually going solo around 2008. Bhi then landed some support gigs with Josh Ritter and through management contacts paired up with Ritter’s long term studio partner and producer, Sam Kassirer and the excellent eponymous album that result led to widespread critical acclaim (read the Folk Radio review here).
The album featured a strong set of songs in electro-acoustic mould, with Bhi’s finger style guitar to the fore. A couple of the songs, notably the six minutes plus of Guttersnipe and Eye On You stretched out, with a loose knitted jazziness that suggested a meeting of Richie Havens and Astral Weeks era Van The man. While Morrison’s mystical questing and oblique musings seemed to summon some vision of homecoming, both spiritual and actual, Bhi sings on the hobo anthem Guttersnipe, “If I had a mama, at least I’d have a place to go,” suggesting a more rootless state of mind. The album features a further collection of misfits, a Korean prisoner, a jealous lover or two, one of whom has murderous intent, an equally violent, gung-ho redneck and a person looking forward to retirement. There are also moments of real humour with “We got married in a Walmart, Down by the Wrangler jeans” the opening line from Ballerina, neatly parodying Lee Hazlewood’s Jackson.
That most productive relationship forged on Bhi’s debut continues for this record with Kassirer again at the controls and also contributing keys, organ, vibraphone and marimba. This time around, however, for the majority of the album at least, Bhi trades up to electric guitar, as befitting the fuller more soulful sonic palate of the record. Song wise, Bhi still concerns himself with the underdogs, the displaced and the put upon, taking views from both sides of the picture, there are songs here about immigration, race relations and integration and exclusion.
There’s an excellent if somewhat distracting video, another parody, this time of the film Whiplash, for the opening song, Moving To Brussels. Bhi has talked about the song as sort of setting the album in motion and being inspired by a trip to Europe supporting Rosanne Cash on tour. Embarking in Belgium, Bhi was immediately struck by the large number of African immigrants, questioning what made them leave home and how it chimed with his own story. He sings, “I’m moving to Brussels, I’m moving to Spain, I’m moving to Harlem, it’s all the same.” In a way there’s a positive feel of a wide open world, but as he also counters, “I never had a home in this world.” There’s also that sense of a former life ending as he sings, “I bought a one way ticket and you’re not invited.” It’s a great groove of a track based around organ and a slashing guitar, the background packed with little details, the handclaps, vibes and more that surface in the songs easy roll.
There Goes The Neighbourhood, takes a sideways view of an increasingly polarised society and asks what those in power are going to do for those who have fallen on hard times. Their reaction is one of indifference and even hostility as Bhi sings, “Let’s just push out all the bums, From our ghettos and our slums, Send them back to where they come from.” The lazy lope has a reggae-ish feel and there’s a suggestion of the later day Marley about it. There’s a sinister feeling lurking too, “As the border closes in, And the stranger knows to grin,” the outsider trying to deflect hostility with a smile. The flipside is of course Bread And Butter, with many migrants proving hard working and well able to look after themselves. It isn’t all work, however, as Bhi sings, “We know when to work, we know when to party.” There’s also a slyly funny reference to the black market with, “Lady Marmalade, that tart owes me money.” Not everything is above board, but it’s just supply and demand and making do, set to a circling, grungy groove, with a powerful shuffling backbeat and a final nagging horn riff.
The neat clockwork of Bennie Please, a more acoustic song although with some nice electric piano fills, simply seems to be about getting a troublesome infant to sleep and the extremes of lies and cajoling that a parent will go to for some peace. There’s a sting in the tail, however, as at the end Bhi sings, “Trying to make a living, Doing the best I can, Trying to raise this child, In this godforsaken land.”
The most overtly political song on the record is up next and it’s a stunner too with a string drenched homage to the troubled Huey Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther movement. It questions the progress made and the climate of fear and repression that led to riots in the 60s, then the late 80s and of course has recently kicked off again. Bhi sings, “The police they always ask, ‘Why the senseless violence?’ But they light the spark, We’ll be dry brush and the wind.” The song follows Newton’s decline into crack addiction, although not without suggesting that the government were complicit in introducing freebasing into the black ghettos. It’s a stunning piece of music and segues directly into the ominously brooding Death Song. It’s gallows-blackly humorous take on the final curtain seems to catch the Grim Reaper lacking in job satisfaction, yet compelled to, “Harvest the greed.”
The tempo lifts for The Color Pink which has been described by Bhi as the kind of song that Pop’s Staples and Jerry Falwell, the firebrand preacher who is vehemently anti Gay rights, might collaborate on. Bhi voices that viewpoint with the ridiculous assertion that, “The colour pink is the sign of the devil,” as he wanders around the ideas of sexual orientation and counters it with, “The colour pink is the talk of the season.” His Facebook neatly dedicates the song to the recent referendum in Ireland and the positive vote to end discrimination. Waterboarded (In Love), is a 60’s garage band version of a soul stomper that makes wry use of a terrible concept, and somehow makes a sly and subtle point about torture at the same time.
There another nice bit of orchestration with horns and woodwind for The Fool. Bhi sings, “Now that the worst part is over I can get on with the rest of my life, If I only knew you broke the rule and your talk was filled with lie after lie, You made me the fool.” It’s another political statement dressed up as a love song and features what must surely be the most compelling vocal performance on the album. That said the gospel tinged Closer To Thee runs it as close as the title suggests, as the horns and more pile in for an amazingly uplifting finale.
Bhi has with plenty to say for himself, but ensures you keep listening for the pure pleasure of it, with lithe and grovesome soul chops that are brilliantly arranged and played, while Bhiman’s voice soars above the mix. Sam Kassirer has helped to create the mood with a sound that isn’t afraid of getting down and dirty in search of real emotional connection. This is an important record that asks some pertinent questions, yet feels like a proper old school soul LP as Rhythm & Reason are brought into perfect harmony by Bhi Bhiman’s unique gifts. It even runs to just shy of 40 minutes, although the quality of the song-craft, the potency of the sing-along melodies and pin sharp lyrics, ensure you’ll never feel short changed and it simply feels custom made to be pressed on vinyl. Hopefully he’ll have some with him when he plays London next week as I have a crisp note or two waiting!
Review by: Simon Holland
UK & Ireland Tour Dates
Jun 02 – The Islington (headline), London,
Jun 03 – KOKO w/ Lord Huron, London,
Jun 04 – Brudenell Social w/ Lord Huron, Leeds,
Jun 05 – King Tut’s w/ Lord Huron, Glasgow,
Jun 06 – Whelan’s w/ Lord Huron Dublin, Ireland
Rhythm & Reason is released June 1st 2015 via BooCoo / Thirty Tigers
Order via Amazon