Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses: Junky Star 

It's an unfortunate truism that happy artists don't often make good art. Happiness tends to preclude the spiritual and personal conflicts that produce the finest artistic endeavors.

That doesn't mean that you have to be a miserable bastard to create something worthwhile, but it helps.

Ryan Bingham, the Texas roots rocker who's still riding the career boost of winning an Oscar for his song The Weary Kind, is probably not a miserable bastard. But his latest album, Junky Star, definitely takes a turn for the melancholy, and it turns out to be a good move.

Fans of his previous albums, Mescalito and Roadhouse Sun, know Bingham is a hardscrabble singer-songwriter in the vein of James McMurtry and Joe Ely, a dab hand with an electric guitar and possessing a raspy blues-soaked voice that sounds way older than he is. What Junky Star reveals, is that on top of his blues and roots-rock skills, he has Dylan and Springsteen running through his veins, too. The Dylan influence is evident in the cheeriest song on the disc, "Direction of the Wind," a protest screed that masks discontented lyrics with a mid-tempo thump and slide, but the Springsteen strains shape the album. Beginning with "The Poet," a subdued ballad that would fit right into the Boss's Devils and Dust album, and continuing through with the widescreen rumble of "Hard Worn Trail" and the minimalist despair of "Lay My Head on the Rail," Bingham paints in various shades of melancholy and economic failure. In fact, addiction and recession run through Junky Star like third rails, charging every downbeat note and giving Bingham's distinctive growl that much more of a defeated edge.

This sounds like it might be a soundtrack for suicide, but that's not where Bingham is going. As a genre, blues is cathartic music, and Bingham understands that. While there aren't any barn-burners on this CD, he does throw in a couple of mid-tempo bright spots, including the ironically named "Depression," to up the ante a little bit. By the time he gets to the album closer, "All Choked Up Again," Bingham the singer has come through an album's worth of darkness and made it back up to rueful, which is a good place to end up. Junky Star is not a party album, unless your idea of a good time is hanging around a funeral parlor. But for introspective roots-rock and a tour through Texas blues, it's damn hard to beat.

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