Ryan Bingham And The Dead Horses
[Rating: 4 stars]
We’ve gotta send out a long-distance high five to Ryan Bingham from all of us out here in listener-land -– he got invited to the big dance and opted instead for a lonely drive down a long dark road and our stereos will all be better for it. The L.A.-based, Texas-born singer-songwriter could have gone in a very, very different direction as his follow up to “The Weary Kind,” the Oscar-winning tune from 2009’s country music parable Crazy Heart. Nobody would have begrudged him a run at the brass ring and it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine the good looking, gravel-voiced Bingham becoming a crossover pop star but, nope, he decided to go way off trail and follow his big win with Junky Star.
Recorded over three days with “Weary Kind” collaborator and award-printing musical mastermind T Bone Burnett, Junky Star finds Bingham stripping back his already bare-bones style until it’s practically just a beating heart. Stark and minimal, Junky Star makes every strum count and every beat of the kick drum resonate like a meteor strike on a dark desert night. Dispensing with even the MOST simple of adornments of his previous albums Roadhouse Sun and Mescalito – accordion, mandolin, and so on – Bingham paints a huge, panoramic picture with only a handful of elegant strokes, leaving the listener hanging on every strum of the guitar and splash of the cymbals.
Eschewing pop stardom for stark and adventurous artistry is always a risky decision – the world’s cut-out bins are filled with “bold artistic statements” and grievous “artistic” miscalculations – but Bingham and his band The Dead Horses rise to the occasion to create the best record of their short but productive career. Junky Star doesn’t jump out at you immediately – there are no big hooks or hit singles to smack you upside the head and scream “Listen to this album!” Junky Star doesn’t make a big show of it’s contents, doesn’t make a sideshow out of the hard-scrabble characters that populate it’s lyrics and doesn’t exploit the underclass for it’s own gain – if anything, the sparse instrumental architecture allows the inhabitants of these songs more room to walk around, more room to breath, more room to be characters.
Which, come to think of it, might just be why Junky Star – for all of it’s convention flouting and what not – may be the most logical follow-up to that most mainstream of mainstream successes – an Oscar. If you’re the kind of person that made it all the way to the end of Crazy Heart, all the way to the credits – to the point where Bingham’s voice takes over “The Weary Kind” after the heart-string-snapping diptych of performances by Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell – and thought “Holy shit, that’s one hell of a song!” Well, you’re not going to want to hear a “It Sure Is Monday”-type pop trifle. You want a serious meat-and-potatoes song with emotional heft and depth of character not unlike the movie you just watched.
If you’re a fan of Bingham from his previous albums, you’re probably looking for more of his rugged voice and ragged poetry and Junky Star is teeming with it. Rather than sacrificing craft and integrity to capitalize on a fleeting moment of attention from mainstream culture, Bingham has made a bold declaration of intent, taken a hard stand against false promises and the hollow seductions of the celebrity-industrial complex. Bingham made a challenging record, opted to go the Bad Blake route instead of going down in a blaze of ponytails and designer jeans, and that ensures his relevance for years to come.