By Cher Guevara, Contributing Writer
In the cult classic, Pink Flamingos, drag legend Divine famously said “Filth is my politics, filth is my life!” Indianapolis trans folk singer Bette Combs seems to take that lesson to heart in her debut album Cheat Days. Recorded in a raw lo-fi style, Bette blazes through track after track of primal anger and personal liberation.
After a strange and noisy intro where Bette says that anybody is welcome to this album, no matter how many dicks they have and that despite government warnings, you can in fact eat trash, the album gets properly rolling with “Pariah”, an upbeat number where Bette offers no apologizes for her outsider status and revels in being a rebel.
Those rebellious colors are flying high with “Drunk Drivin’”, a gross decadent salute to a life chemically inebriated. Bette sings of telling her boss to fuck off and hitting the road with her crew, fueled by grass and booze. It’s a jaunty swinging number that sounds like raw honky-tonk. You can almost hear the crowd cheering along in some dingy bar as Bette sings “Yeah we’re free out here on the open road, no master’s gotta throw a dog a bone!”
The album takes a darker turn with the bluesy funeral dirge of “Deadname” where Bette tells the sad story of people calling her by her old name. But it’s not sad in the way you might be thinking: Bette turns her guns on the person calling the name, telling them how pathetic it is that they can’t see the beautiful person she has become. It’s less a fuck you and more along the lines of “Open your eyes and see something beautiful, instead of seeing what you want me to be.”
“The Separation of Identity and Politics” could very well be Bette’s musical manifesto, a call to arms for those who don’t fit in anywhere and have no desire to do so. Bette rejects those who fetishize her, those who think she should make a certain stand or write about certain things just because she’s queer, and those who judge her for past fuck-ups. She sings her stirring refrain “We are the new underground…we’ll make mistakes, embrace our differences and mend our different visions” for all who embrace true individuality. I found this cut particularly refreshing as a call of resistance in an LGBT movement that’s become increasingly mainstreamed and mono-cultured.
Bette’s strange side comes out with “Honesty”, where her voice groans and moans over a mix of acoustic folk riffs and strange feedback noises. This is the most experimental cut on the album and even through her slurring vocals, you get a deep glimpse into what lies underneath her trash hippie veneer.
Closing with “Decomposed”, Bette offers a glimmer of hope even as it seems the world is crashing and burning around all of us. Rather than calling for more violence and bloodshed, Bette sings to us “Try, try, try, just give it a try” as she offers her love and support to any who want it. And with the lines towards to the end of the song “Dead body in the ground will make the flowers bloom, let go of everything you hated and become something new”, what better optimism could be offered in these troubled times?
Bette may well be the avant-garde of the new queer country underground; in thirteen tracks she showcased her rebelliousness, her optimism, and yes, her love. This album was recorded in what sounds like an ultra-lo-fi style; just Bette, her guitar, and an old tape recorder. With queer music sounding more and more polished and photo-copied, such a raw, honest voice is a glimmer of hope for the outsiders in the community.
If you want to try something new, I can’t recommend this album enough, with its primitive punk rock production style and gritty folk sound, Cheat Days may well be in the running for Best Debut Album of 2020. And if you live in or near Indianapolis, chances are good you’ll find Bette at some coffeehouse or run down nightclub strumming her guitar and singing her rough gemstone poetry for the people.