Ryan Bingham and The Dead Horses, Junky Star

Ryan Bingham has enjoyed one hell of a ride of late. The singer-songwriter can boast of winning numerous awards for his writing and performing “The Weary Kind,” the theme song to the Jeff Bridges’ film Crazy Heart, the biggest of which being the granddaddy of them all–an Oscar for Best Original Song.
Also, the man can proudly point out that he recently was named Artist of the Year at the 2010 Americana Music Awards which were handed out in Nashville on September 9th. Not bad for someone who is barely 30 years old and was a regular bull rider on the rodeo circuit a while back.
Bingham is one artist who will not let success go to his head, however, and this is evident on his latest cd entitled Junky Star. This release is a relative surprise for Bingham’s fans as it is a mellow affair full of songs which are basically short stories about the downtrodden and hopeless.
(What is predictable though is that the songwriter continued with his successful pairing of “The Weary Kind” producer T-Bone Burnett for this project.)
Interestingly, some critics are saying Junky Star’s sparse sound and bleak lyrics are just too depressing; while others claim that the record is a good sign of today’s times. Whatever you think though, the album is always intriguing thanks to Bingham and his band The Dead Horses’ talents.
Junky Star’s best moments come early on with tracks like “The Poet” and “Hallelujah.” The former song is the album’s opener and it sets up the recording perfectly with its acoustic guitar and gentle harmonica.
Best of all, however, is Bingham’s trademark sandpaper-drenched-in-whiskey vocals which makes his tale of a place where “sweethearts kiss in the dark and the homeless sleep in the park…while the poet in the back writes down his songs in blood” a stunner.
As for “Hallelujah,” it is the song where The Dead Horses reveal they are a great backing band. While the lyrics about a man who was murdered and finds himself caught in limbo impress, the interplay of drummer Matthew Smith and bassist Elijah Ford along with an energetic guitar solo by Corby Schaub make the song most memorable.
To be honest, Junky Star’s second half is nowhere near as good as what preceded it. A few tracks like the uptempo, 60s era Bob Dylan-like “Direction of the Wind” and the outlaw country-inspired “All Choked Up Again” are good listens but they get buried by too many bare songs near the album’s end that sound the same.
Still, Junky Star is a definite success for Bingham. The most impressive aspect to the cd are the man’s lyrics and vocals. And despite the darker tones to the songs here, Bingham’s singing can be surprisingly passionate and he shows a striking range which sometimes gives off the impression that there is a bit of hope to his dark tales.
This is most apparent on “Depression” which is Junky Star’s most accessible song. Bingham growls “I’d rather lay down in a pine box then to sell my heart to a fuckin’ wasteland” while also tenderly admitting “In this depression, all I need is you.”
Those honest lyrics–and not winning Oscars and other awards–are what make Bingham a songwriter to keep an eye on for years to come.
Author-Todd Sikorski
[Rating: 3.5]

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