Ryan Bingham – Lucky Star

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I generally like artists who record for Lost Highway Records, a label that tends towards alt-country, Americana, folk derived music.junky-star  I also like airplanes.  And, I like highly discounted CDs at Best Buy.  “What the heck?  I haven’t taken a blind stab all year, and it’s only $7.99!” 

Four months later, I’m finally writing a review.  Bingham won an Academy Award for his theme song for The Weary Kind, which also won Jeff Bridges an Oscar last year.  That credit aside, Bingham is not a household name, by any means (You apparently have to appear on “American Idol” for notoriety in the 21st century).  Junky Star, his third solo release, immediately put me off a bit.  It had the cool cover picture, and it had the credit of being produced by T Bone Burnett, who excels at capturing music and presenting it on a worn plank stage somewhere in Appalachia.  But I wasn’t prepared for Bingham’s voice. 

Call it raspy.  Or grizzled.  Or ragged.  Or, perhaps raw… open-sores-in-the-throat raw… and add a few shots of Jack Daniels.  And the music?  Capable… appropriate, even.  But not exactly foot tapping or adrenaline rousing stuff from the backing band known as The Dead Horses.

Junky Star is a study of the understated.  Despite the… I’ll use jagged… edge to Bingham’s voice, he uses the resulting… pop and hiss? … to provide more than a little atmosphere to each of his fairly dark, hard-lived narratives.  Tales of being shot dead, living amongst junkies and stars on the Santa Monica Pier, being societally invisible as the losers in the fortunes of life… it’s road house stuff.  All is not bleak, but even where hope is found (“Depression,” “Yesterday’s Blues), it’s among ample difficulties.  But don’t equate this to a study in despair; while there isn’t redemption to be found, hope and perseverance play throughout.

“Direction in the Wind” channels a societal shift ala Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, at once not as compelling as those artists but far more authentic than Springsteen could ever muster beyond his “Glory Days.”

I’m at the point where I like this CD a good bit.  Bingham’s voice wears (appropriately…) on you, as the nuances of the echoing bass, the occasional cutting harmonica, or, the rare insertion of an electric guitar with attitude entangle the listener with each tale.  Delayed gratification can be a very rewarding quality to music.

Still, like another T Bone Burnett production, Jakob Dylan’s Women + Country, what’s lacking is something to change the pace.  There are different tones, to be sure, but there’s not an adequate release from the weight of it all.

Recommended Songs: “The Poet,” “Hallelujah,” “Yesterday’s Blues”

3 of 5 STARS

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