Lost Highway, 2007
REVIEW BY: Josh Allen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/19/2011
In October 2007, Ryan Bingham rode onto the Americana music scene from the dusty, west Texas horizon with the first of three major label releases in four years. Turns out, he’s got talent; Bingham’s rise in popularity and critical acclaim reached new heights last year, when he crossed the Kodak Theatre stage to accept an Academy Award for his compositions in the bittersweet, whiskey-soaked drama, Crazy Heart.
Prior to all that success, his journey started with his ’07 release, Mescalito, a shining example of roadhouse rock at its finest. Much of Bingham’s songwriting sticks to a simple but tried-and-true formula for country rock: midtempo ballads with straightforward rhythmic structure and self-lamenting lyrics. However, it’s Bingham’s rusty voice -- which draws numerous comparisons to Tom Waits or maybe even a country-fried Bob Dylan -- that separates him from the country music pack, however. It’s enough to catch you off-guard, if you’re not prepared for it.
The introduction of his gravelly croaking in lead-off single “Southside Of Heaven” punctuates an easygoing introit that consists of a mellow acoustic guitar and lonesome harmonica. Gorgeous lyrics transport you to a parched, Dust Bowl-like setting (“I’ve been a desperado in west Texas for so long, Lord, I need a change / For ten long years, this old place ain’t seen a drop o’ rain”). After a couple of verses, it slows to a smoldering pace momentarily before ending in a rousing, banjo-laced finale. A perfect composition, “Southside Of Heaven” perfectly sets the tone for the 58 minutes that follow.
Bingham and his backing band, The Dead Horses, achieve their greatest success with uptempo anthems dedicated to the hardships of a downtrodden, tough-as-nails cowboy. “Dollar A Day” (“I been workin’ in the goddam sun / Well, just for a dollar a day”) and “Bread And Water” (“Stuck outside the middle of the desert / Wishin’ I was home”) are each endlessly entertaining -- exactly the kind of songs their growing fan base will rush to hear them play. The latter features an invigorating hook on slide guitar that, despite your best efforts, will play over and over again in your head for hours.
Mescalito holds its own on its less energetic tracks as well. “Ghost Of Travelin’ Jones,” a mysterious ballad driven by a piano bassline, features a cameo by Terry Allen of Southern rock fame, and “Sunrise” has an undeniably catchy rhythm backed occasionally by a pair of woozy fiddles. “Borracho Station” incorporates classical guitar influences and clumsily slips into Spanish here and there.
My only complaint with Mescalito is that, after over an hour of play, it gets a little watered down. “Take It Easy Mama” feels contrived and comparatively uninspired. “Sunshine,” while creating an aura befitting its title with screeching guitars, just isn’t very pleasant to listen to. Also, a disproportionate number of slower-tempo songs on the back-end of the album are individually listenable, but they make the album a bit of a drag as a whole.
Nevertheless, Mescalito showcases the talents of one of the up-and-coming names in country music. With startlingly vivid imagery and a coarseness befitting the album’s sepia-filtered cover art, this is what country music oughta be.