Songs that follow a linear narrative can be tricky things. Folk artists tend to over-emphasize the message, while rockers may surround their meaning with a wall of sound; nonetheless, there are modern songwriters who manage to walk the narrow path between both impulses — among them, Joseph Arthur, Martin Sexton and Richard Buckner. Add the Bay Area’s Bhi Bhiman to that list. His music is no less assertive, using sturdy but melodic guitar riffs as his foundation. Some tracks here are solo acoustic numbers, but he often brings along a few bouncy electric guitar leads, some understated vibraphone, earthy acoustic bass, and some occasionally dreamy but not overbearing production touches that make the songs sound traditional and modern. The real treat here, however, is the number of musical ideas he packs into each song. Far from simply dressing up his message with a plain three-chord riff, Bhiman isn’t afraid to down-shift into a waltz or veer off to alternate tune on the bridge before circling back to original melody. He does both on “Time Heals.” Interestingly, this Sri Lankan-American proves he knows his music history, writing new lyrics to Johnny Cash’s “Jackson” (“Ballerina”) and turning Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special” into an ode to a North Korean prisoner (“Kimchi Line”). Other unlikely subjects abound as well, leaving the listener to wonder if there’s any subject this troubadour can’t bring to life, whether he’s cleverly appropriating musical ideas or creating a variety of fresh ones on his own.
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