Plenty of modern country singers like Eric Church and Jason Aldean talk a pretty loud “outlaw” game, but none of them actually let their music do that talking the way Scott H. Biram does. A one-man band whose music is steeped in acoustic blues, vintage country, and punk, Biram is a fearless singer-songwriter who creates a ragged, blustery wall of sound from just a mic, a ‘59 hollow-body Gibson, and a stomp board. That Bad Ingredients, Biram’s fourth studio album, happens to be his quietest and most mature effort doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s still an album of hard-living songs and straight-up filthy country and blues.
The album’s centerpiece, “Broke Ass,” is a melancholy but insightfully observed song of political outrage that Biram disguises as a gentle, acoustic love song to a two-dollar whore. Touching on matters of poverty and social disenfranchisement, Biram invites his listeners to “Come on down/Take a look at my bad dream” with a tricky balance of empathy and gallows humor, suggesting a bad dream is better than no dream at all. It’s a bleak outlook, sure, but it’s one that Biram develops fully over the course of the album, as “Born in Jail” draws apt parallels between literal prisons and the figurative prison of rural poverty and “Killed a Chicken Last Night” uses its title as a metaphor for an especially nasty breakup.
Biram, in producing the album and performing all of the instruments save for saxophonist Walter Daniels’s part on “I Want My Mojo Back,” ensures that the album’s sound is well matched to his tales of strife, heartbreak, and depravity. The electric blues-guitar licks he lays down on “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and “Wind Up Blind” are as thick as tar, with heavy reverb and distortion keeping the tracks from sounding too refined. Biram obscures his throaty, raw vocal performances fairly low in the mixes even on the quieter acoustic tracks, so every one of his yelps and shouts gives the impression that he, like the characters he personifies, is fighting to be heard.
While the tone of Bad Ingredients is consistent, though, the quality of Biram’s songwriting isn’t. Songs like “Open Road” and “Wind Up Blind” make it clear that he understands the minimalism of country songwriting and the 12-bar structures of blues arrangements, but he also has a tendency to shoehorn the occasional longwinded or awkwardly worded phrase into a metric structure where it doesn’t fit. “Hang Your Head and Cry” barrels ahead at a breakneck speed, and a line like “Leave you in the road, and when the dust clears/It’s a broke-down situation that left you here in tears” makes it sound like Biram’s struggling to keep up. “Don’t You Lie to Me Baby” takes his relative minimalism too far, barely registering as a song at all.
Despite the occasional lapse in songwriting, Bad Ingredients still impresses for what Biram accomplishes within the confines of a DIY aesthetic. He may not have the manpower of an act like the Dead Weather or the Black Keys, but he makes every bit as much noise and his take on blues is every bit as deep and full-bodied. He may not protest too much about his outlaw cred like Justin Moore or Brantley Gilbert, but his best songs make that case for him. A deceptively smart album, Bad Ingredients drags its relevant sense of political frustration and remarkable insight and empathy through the dirtiest of country and blues.