Album review: Ryan Bingham's 'Junky Star'
In "Strange Feelin’ in the Air," a crooked guitar riff stalks, offering a feeling of apprehension as sure as the shifty outsider bursting through the swinging doors of the townie saloon. It’s pure Ryan Bingham, a conjurer of atmosphere, a gift that he put to good use for "The Weary Kind," his Oscar-winning song featured in "Crazy Heart."
The Topanga Canyon troubadour wrote the movie’s theme with roots maestro T Bone Burnett, who also lends his production skills to "Junky Star," Bingham’s third album of dirty-fingernail Americana. Unlike Bingham’s last outing, "Roadhouse Sun," in which his native windswept Texas dominated the proceedings, California creeps up in the margins. In the ragged, heartfelt "Depression," the Golden State might be an escape from a wasteland, but it’s not that simple; on the title track, he’s "sleeping on the Santa Monica Pier, with the junkies and the stars."
Whatever specter California casts, thank heavens it doesn’t add polish. Bingham’s voice still sounds like a gut-shot animal dragging itself across the road. It can bend toward a moment of relief, like when he sings "Hallelujah," or it can fold into sorrow, as it does on "Yesterday’s Blues." Burnett wisely stands back and lets Bingham, the former bull rider, bleed or buck in the spotlight.
The only quality that’s sorely missed on "Junky Star" is Bingham’s sense of adventure. There’s nothing on here that approaches the meltdown of "Change Is" or the spitfire of "Hey Hey Hurray" on "Roadhouse Sun." Bingham, no stranger now to the Hollywood circuit, might be in a new land but he shouldn’t forget his pioneer spirit.
-- Margaret Wappler
Three stars (Out of four)