Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Album Reviews: Ryan Bingham - 'Junky Star'

Pop & Hiss
The L.A. Times music blog
August 30, 2010 10:55 pm

In "Strange Feelin’ in the Air," a crooked guitar riff stalks, offering a feeling of apprehension as sure as the shifty outsider bursting through the swinging doors of the townie saloon. It’s pure Ryan Bingham, a conjurer of atmosphere, a gift that he put to good use for "The Weary Kind," his Oscar-winning song featured in "Crazy Heart."

The Topanga Canyon troubadour wrote the movie’s theme with roots maestro T Bone Burnett, who also lends his production skills to "Junky Star," Bingham’s third album of dirty-fingernail Americana. Unlike Bingham’s last outing, "Roadhouse Sun," in which his native windswept Texas dominated the proceedings, California creeps up in the margins. In the ragged, heartfelt "Depression," the Golden State might be an escape from a wasteland, but it’s not that simple; on the title track, he’s "sleeping on the Santa Monica Pier, with the junkies and the stars."

Whatever specter California casts, thank heavens it doesn’t add polish. Bingham’s voice still sounds like a gut-shot animal dragging itself across the road. It can bend toward a moment of relief, like when he sings "Hallelujah," or it can fold into sorrow, as it does on "Yesterday’s Blues." Burnett wisely stands back and lets Bingham, the former bull rider, bleed or buck in the spotlight.

The only quality that’s sorely missed on "Junky Star" is Bingham’s sense of adventure. There’s nothing on here that approaches the meltdown of "Change Is" or the spitfire of "Hey Hey Hurray" on "Roadhouse Sun." Bingham, no stranger now to the Hollywood circuit, might be in a new land but he shouldn’t forget his pioneer spirit.

-- Margaret Wappler

Ryan Bingham

"Junky Star"

Lost Highway

Three stars (Out of four)

Junky Star – 2010 (Lost Highway)
Ryan Bingham

Reviewed by Michael Berick
August 31, 2010

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.

Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses' 'Junky Star' review: Has the voice, the soul, but not the music

By Jim Farber
Tuesday, August 31st 2010, 4:00 AM

Ryan Bingham's 'Junky Star,' his follow-up to the Oscar-winning 'Crazy Heart,' has the right voice but the music is not quite up to snuff.

Ryan Bingham seems like such a well-groomed and promising young man. Articulate, handsome and, earnest, Bingham has also been richly rewarded of late, having bagged both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for co-writing "The Weary Kind" for Jeff Bridges' character in "Crazy Heart."

But Bingham's voice tells a rougher story. It's all whisky and heartache, desperation and age. Blessed with a classic rasp, 29-year-old Bingham wheezes meaningfully through his songs, exhaling just enough consequence and grit to suggest a junior Steve Earle or a cub Waylon Jennings.

Those qualities gave Bingham's first two albums on the alterna-country label Lost Highway credibility and heart. If anything, they're on even rawer display on the new, "Junky Star." The songs seem looser, less formal and, as a consequence, not as catchy or easily embraced.

Clearly, Bingham hasn't tried to slick up his sound in the slightest since his breakthrough. Once again he worked with Americana producer T-Bone Burnett, who frayed the sound even further, letting Bingham's crinkly vocals cackle around flintier guitar chords.

The scenarios of the songs delve into the dark side as well. "Hallelujah" (not the Leonard Cohen song, thank God), features a dead man as its main character. Murdered near the song's start, he narrates the rest as a ghost caught between worlds.

In "All Choked Up Again," the narrator kills his father then tears himself apart. "Everyday I seem to dig a little deeper into nothing that is left behind," he broods.

Not that the songs lack a hint of redemption. There's a lot of love-conquering-all-here, which tips off Bingham's biggest problem: his debt to cliche. The heroin addicts who nod through two key tracks, the poet who wanders through "shelters and shambles," come off more as self-glorifying archetypes than gnarly individuals.

The ambling nature of the music doesn't help. As compositions, the songs don't feel complete, which makes the whole package seem hollow.

Bingham's romantic view of beautiful losers - unredeemed by humor or self-awareness - plays into a long-running American stereotype: the seen-it-all gunslinger, hobbled but hopeful.

Bingham may have the voice of withered knowing down. But without enough compelling music to support it, his album ends up seeming like a movie version of a life rather than the real thing.


Album review: Ryan Bingham's new album 'Junky Star' shines

By Melinda Newman
August 30, 2010

Ryan Bingham would seemingly have every reason to be happy after traveling from relative mainstream obscurity to nabbing the best original song Oscar for “The Weary Kind” from “Crazy Heart.”

However, he’s keeping his glee to himself. There is no evidence of celebration or his growing celebrity on “Junky Star,” his third album with the Dead Horses. The characters who populate the largely acoustic “Junky Star” are so downtrodden, they make “Crazy Heart’s” desolate Bad Blake seem as successful as a Fortune 500 CEO.

These protagonists aren’t diamonds in the rough. They are, and always will be, chunks of coal and it is to Bingham’s credit that he sees the tarnished beauty amid the decay.

Bingham’s roughnecks may not have shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, but they create their own murderer’s row, in some cases killing strangers, in others, killing kin. They’ve been marginalized by the economy and by their own misdeeds and no one notices when they’re no longer there. If they aren’t physically dying, as they are on “Hallelujah” or “All Choked Up Again,” they are spiritually and morally.

The few flickers of hope are still muted in desperation. On “Depression” and “Yesterday’s Blues,” love is the only life raft in very choppy waters.

The stripped down production, handled nimbly by T-Bone Burnett (with whom Bingham worked on “Crazy Heart”) allows the songs to be front and center. Recorded solely with the Dead Horses--drummer Matthew Smith, bassist Elijah Ford and guitarist Corby Schaub-- and no outside musicians, the album feels insular and slightly claustrophobic, just like the characters. Everyone is going nowhere fast, but they’re in no hurry to get there. Bingham’s weatherbeaten vocals--he’s 29, but he sounds like he’s 65--add to the high lonesome feel. His growl can be a slap or a caress.

Bingham isn’t doing anything that Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen haven’t done before, but that he can even stand comfortably within their shadows here is an accomplishment worth celebrating.

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