Rhythm & Reason
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Look no further than the artists Bhi Bhiman has toured as opening act for to understand that his unique sound attracts an eclectic audience. From Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell to Rosanne Cash and most recently Rhiannon Giddens, Bhiman’s combination of Motown inspired urban soul, reggae, Caribbean infused folk, bluesy pop and even straight ahead psychedelic garage rock has something for almost everyone. Add strong, politically driven, lyrical content to bring even greater depth to his sound.
On paper this cross-cultural diversity seems hopelessly oblique. But Bhiman’s distinctive, immediately identifiable gospel voice and his idiosyncratic style of singing often behind the beat ties the loose ends together making this, his third and most focused album, also his best.
The St. Louis bred son of Sri-Lankan parents occasionally over reaches his grasp with lyrics that strain against easy flowing melodies, as in the somber, revolutionary message of “Up In Arms” that name checks everyone from Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, Bobby Seal and Black Panther Huey Newton against softly picked acoustic guitar and a string quartet. Far better is the somewhat odd concept of berating a girlfriend for interrogating him in the driving, nearly Spector-ish “Waterboarded (In Love).” The sweet reggae lilt of “There Goes the Neighborhood” only partially obscures its socially conscious concepts which, like those of Bob Marley, go down easier when accompanied by singalong melodies. And few will be able to ignore the pure, finger-popping Chicago soul that powers the opening “Moving to Brussels.”
Give credit to producer/multi-instrumentalist Sam Kassirer who frames Bhiman’s songs and voice in sympathetic settings with subtle use of horns, marimba and vibraphone that accentuate the singer’s vocal and lyrical gifts without drowning him in good intentions. Even those used to seeing Bhiman in a live solo, unplugged context will likely admit that a fuller and deeper sonic vision helps these tunes connect to a larger base; one that will surely grow if this inspiring release finds its target audience beyond the NPR crowd he has already won over.