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.