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Ryan Bingham

Junky Star – 2010 (Lost Highway)

Reviewed by Michael Berick

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CDs by Ryan Bingham

Ryan Bingham's name recognition took a quantum leap this year after his Academy Award win for Best Original Song with The Weary Kind. But fear not, the Texas troubadour hasn't gone Hollywood on his marvelous new album. There isn't a stylistic overhaul or big-name guests. The only slight change for his third full length is that T Bone Burnett replaced Marc Ford in the producer's chair. However, Burnett also co-helmed the "Crazy Heart" soundtrack, and their raw, organic styles are quite simpatico.

If there is a Hollywood influence, it's in Bingham's songwriting. His hard-lived tales resemble Western noir stories. The lead-off track, The Poet, establishes the cinematic atmosphere. A lonesome harmonica sets the stage for a colorful, yet dark-hued, story where "senoritas lose it to mariachi music" and "the poet writes his songs in blood." It's as if Springsteen had done "Nebraska" under the influence of Sam Peckinpaugh.

Violence and guns play an important role in several other tunes. The title track starts off with "a man came to shake my hand and rob me of my farm/I shot him dead, hung my head and drove off in his car." The man then heads off to the squalid life among the "junkies and the stars" at the Santa Monica Pier. In Hallelujah, a man thinks he recognizes someone as an old friend, only to be shot dead by this impoverished, desperate man, with the now dead man realizing that there is no real salvation, and "hallelujah is just a song."

Death also figures prominently in Hard Worn Trail, where a man is left for dead and the closer All Choked Up Again, in which a man admits "I think I just killed a man, think it was my old man." The turmoil in the first tune is evocatively accentuated by the musical arrangement, which offers dramatic use of a slide guitar and percussion. Burnett guests in tremolo guitar on the latter tune, adding a haunting quality to the narrative.

While Bingham works well in simple musical settings, Burnett does a fine job of utilizing Bingham's road-tested band, The Dead Horses (there's the image of death again). The sinister guitar line snakes through Strange Feelin' In The Air, and Hallelujah also uses guitars (building from a quite acoustic to noisier electric) to reflect the song's dramatics. The band works up some roadhouse grooves too on The Wandering and Direction Of The Wind, which provide some welcome change of musical pace. In The Wandering, Bingham also stretches out his older-than-his-years, nicotine and whiskey voice into a twangier croon.

Bingham does offer a few rays of lights amidst his generally dark narratives. Despite its title, Depression actually is a song about the power of love - although set against these grim economic times. Bingham powerfully expresses here, on one of the standout efforts, how love can pull someone through the darkest of times. Similarly, in Yesterday's Blues, he movingly conveys how love can conquer the bad times of someone's past.

Although he's not covering particularly new territory here, Bingham does refine what he does best - creating indelible, down-to-the-bone tales of souls lost or struggled to survive - that he has made him one of Americana's finest young songwriters.