Bill Foreman puts his best foot forward with 2007's “Begging Bowl,” seven songs of diverse styles, at once typically melodic and literate and at the same time Bill’s most polished set of recordings to date. Old fans will find a familiar voice speaking with new clarity; those new to Bill’s music will wonder why it’s taken so long to discover him. For both, these twenty minutes of music will immediately gratify and bear, like the rest of Bill’s catalogue, repeated listenings over days, weeks, and years.
“Open Door” starts things off in classically Foreman style: a blues form that doesn’t sound bluesy, with a narrative at once crystal clear and oblique. The loss of a romantic partner reflects on the narrator’s own situation, physically and psychologically—all this, with mandolins. “By Its Very Nature Fleeting” is a triptych in song, pounding tom-toms and interlacing electric guitar and piano, with three college-aged narrators ruminating on death from three perspectives.
Bill returns to Irish-flavored instrumentals with “Planxty Steve Gonzales” before “The Stray Dogs of Dakar,” another slanted blues—imagine Skip James busking with an accordion player on the Champs-Élysées. Drawing on his own stay in Dakar, Bill takes a series of images of the city and frames them with the narrative of an orphaned, educated, and desperately poor taxi driver.
“El Chorrillo” stands as the album’s centerpiece, using a foul example of American war crimes in the 1989 invasion of Panama to critique the United States’ continuing military interventionism. The narrator, an American soldier, burns working-class Panamanian apartments while attmempting to dissociate from the experience with a variety of hallucinogens. The music takes an opposite tack, using an almost elegant folk-rock to throw the horror of the narrative into relief.
The mood lightens considerably with the garage-folk-rock flavored “Feeling No Pain (and Paying No Rent),” sending up the Federal Reserve’s deceptively easy credit policies in what is line-for-line the funniest song of the collection. Finishing the set out on a high note, “Eric’s Apartment” places Bill’s dear dog Eric in musical form, in what is certainly his catchiest instrumental since 1998’s “The Professah.”
“Begging Bowl” is standard-issue Bill Foreman, which is to say that it is anything but standard. Few artists can offer his particular combination of talents: melodies that sound both fresh and classic at the same time, intelligent lyrics without off-putting intellectualism, all by a musician who makes every last sound on the record, every instrument and every vocal. If you’re already a fan of Bill’s music, “Begging Bowl” will not disappoint. If you’re not yet a fan, “Begging Bowl” will make you one.