On his third album, songwriter Ryan Bingham reveals both confidence and growth. His previous recordings showed promise but were marred by youthful excesses. Bingham won an Oscar for "The Weary Kind," the theme song from the film Crazy Heart. The song was produced by T-Bone Burnett, creating a partnership extended on Junky Star. Bingham and his Dead Horses -- drummer Matthew Smith, bassist Elijah Ford, and guitarist Corby Schaub -- create a sound planted deeply in folk, country, blues, and roots rock. These lyrically direct songs reflect lost, desperate, displaced individuals, all dreaming the same dark dream and all growing tenser with the times -- and some fall over the edge. Bingham has trimmed his songwriting to the bone, while learning to use metaphor and metonymy with a reportorial eye for detail, allowing the power in his words to speak for themselves. He begins articulating his sandblasted vision of America with "The Poet." Amid acoustic guitars, a lonesome harmonica, restrained electric, and bass drum, Bingham's whiskey-soaked vocal articulates a theme the entire album turns on: "As I keep walking, people keep talking/About things they've never seen or done/Homeless sleep in the park, lovers kiss in the dark/Me, myself I keep moving on through town...the poet in the back writes down his songs in blood." Time is suspended as Bingham's road-worn protagonists tell their hardscrabble stories, past and present, physically and psychologically; sometimes their journeys reach tragic ends. In "The Wandering," countrified rock expresses rootlessness as peace of mind, but one wonders if the seeming protagonist isn't just whistling past the graveyard. "Strange Feelin' in the Air," "Junky Star" (one of several murder ballads), and the explosively rockist "Depression" contradict that view: constant movement seems the key to survival, not contentment. "Hallelujah" is a first-person murder ballad from the victim's point of view that is as utterly moving as it is bone-chilling. "Lay My Head on the Rail" is folk poetry. The lyric blues in "Hard Worn Trail" are rooted in poverty, stress, and broken relationships, searching relentlessly for comfort that doesn't arrive. Even the rowdy outlaw country closer, "All Choked Up Again," mines the existential darkness deeper. Bingham is unflinching, his delivery is collected; even when singing passionately he reserves judgment, leaving room for a glimmer on the horizon, but he doesn't expect it. Musically and lyrically rooted in the Americana of the South and West, Junky Star does offer consolation, however: in these 12 songs, desperation is a shared language disseminated by the storyteller; no one need be left alone in it. Bingham mirrors our era in new legends and myths, without distorting or romanticizing it.
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