Ryan Bingham - Mescalito
Lost Highway Records, 2007
His 2010 full length, entitled Junky Star and made with a group of musicians he called the Dead Horses, actually closed out with "The Weary Kind" as a bonus track. It was a solid set of songs that made it into my honorable mentions and just missed my top 20 or so last year. Similarly, Roadhouse Sun, his more rock-oriented sophomore record from the year before, was something I liked but never loved. The first one I listened to, though, was his solo debut from 2007, called Mescalito, and revisiting the album yesterday (during the lengthy process of wrapping Christmas presents), reminded me of what a terrific record it was, and what a great songwriter this guy can be. Bingham has one of the most distinctive voices out there, a whiskey-drenched growl that lands somewhere between Will Hoge and Tom Waits, and on this record, he uses it to perfect effect. You can hear the nuances and subtleties of the stories he tells in that voice, and while it's not technically an amazing instrument, it's so distinctive and so perfectly suited to these songs that I can't imagine anyone else singing them.
The two subsequent records saw a more fleshed out, full-band approach to Bingham's sound, but he has some truly terrific moments here, as a lone-troubadour with his acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and a notebook full of songs and stories. There are still plenty of full-band traces though, like on the fantastic, absorbing opener, "Southside of Heaven," where percussion and bass keep the song driving, and electric and steel guitar flourishes (and even a bit of mandolin and banjo) turn it into a five-star opener. "Bread and Water" gives Bingham and co. the chance for a honky-tonk breakdown, and "Hard Times" is a more rock-driven number that wouldn't have been out of place on this record's follow up. Meanwhile, the band is mostly dismissed to let Bingham do his thing on songs like "Don't Wait For Me," "Ever Wonder Why" and "Sunrise," which opens with an instantly nostalgic duet between an acoustic guitar and a fiddle. But Bingham saves the best for last in the form of the gorgeous "For What It's Worth," a summer-night campfire song if there ever was one, where Bingham pushes his voice to the limit. It's a song so good that it's often led me to overlook much of the record that preceeds it, which is shame, because there are a lot of terrific things going on here. Perhaps it's time to revisit the rest of Bingham's catalog as well.