Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ryan Bingham - Tomorrowland

Axster Bingham Records, 2012
Four stars

Ryan Bingham’s career received quite the jolt of electricity back in 2010, when his song “The Weary Kind” was suddenly echoing from the sound systems of every movie theater in the country. It was a lucky strike, the kind of breakthrough any wandering troubadour would kill for, but for those of us sitting in those darkened theaters, it wasn’t hard to see why Bingham had won the lottery. The movie was Crazy Heart, a tale of a washed up, hard-driving, big-drinking country star, played so memorably by Jeff Bridges in a performance that won him an Oscar. But movies like that don’t work without the perfect song to build them around, and that’s where Bingham came in. The movie revolved around a relationship that Bridge’s character, “Bad Blake,” had with a much younger woman, how that relationship reinvigorated Blake’s songwriting, and how he lost the girl in the end. I can still remember the first time I saw it, how “The Weary Kind” soundtracked the final frames of the film (as performed by Bridges and co-star Colin Farrell), and how it perfectly switched over to Bingham’s original as the credits started to roll. I couldn’t help but sit and listen to the whole thing play.

Bingham may have won his own well-deserved Oscar for that song, but he also won my allegiance. I rapidly immersed myself in his discography, in his masterful alt-country debut (2007’s Mescalito, whose track “Southside of Heaven” now sits as one of my all-time favorite openers) or in the faster and looser rockers of 2009’s Roadhouse Sun. It wasn’t hard to see why Bingham had been chosen for the film, since his drifter/cowboy persona recalled some of the greatest artists to ever grace the country music genre. Legendary producer T. Bone Burnett, known for his work with Americana and bluegrass artists, must have picked up on that too, since he followed Bingham to his solo project after producing the Crazy Heart soundtrack. The resulting album, Junky Star, released that fall to mixed reviews, but the best moments, stuff like “Hallelujah” or “The Poet,” sounded like the work of a seasoned veteran rather than a scrappy newcomer, and it was clear that Bingham was a songwriter to watch.

Tomorrowland, Bingham’s fourth full-length and the first on his own label, is the best front-to-back album he’s made to date and a payoff on all the bets ever made on him. Junky Star suffered from a lack of variation: too many sad, slow, acoustic songs and hardly any of the rockers of Roadhouse Sun or the twangy, heartland highway anthems of Mescalito. Here, the change of direction is evident right away, with the chromatically descending guitar riff of “Beg for Broken Legs” which kicks off the record in rousing fashion. Played first on acoustic and then electric, that riff forms the backbone of a song that builds swiftly into a potent rocker. Crashing violins drum up intensity as the song barrels on, and Bingham himself sounds revitalized, singing with the force, rage, and conviction that Junky Star’s more tepid moments lacked completely. By the time the song ends, with a chaotic instrumental ascent that evokes a similar moment in The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” listeners won’t want to let go.

Bingham has gone on record to say that he wanted to make an album that was fun to play live, and it’s clear from the very beginning that the songs on Tomorrowland are meant to scorch the stage in bars and clubs all over the country. The lush and gorgeous “Western Shore” is triumphant piece of heartland rock that would have fit perfectly on Mescalito. Powerful acoustics and lovely electric guitar flourishes turn the song into an anthem, and one can just envision fans belting along with it in some sweaty, middle-America honky tonk. First single “Heart of Rhythm” is another full-bodied rocker, more in the tradition of Lucero than go-it-alone Ryan Adams (one of Bingham’s former labelmates), while the sweeping guitar line in “Keep it Together” evokes imagery of expansive desert vistas and sun-burnt freeways. Bingham’s rock ‘n’ roll attitude doesn’t always work though: the loud and angry “Guess Who’s Knocking” is more grating than gratifying, and the perpetual call-to-arms that is “Rising of the Ghetto” stops the album in its tracks. Much of Tomorrowland finds Bingham examining the life of the everyman, railing against unemployment, homelessness, and economic hard times, and “Ghetto” aims to be the big epic centerpiece protest song. But the thing is eight minutes long, adding to an already lengthy 62 minute runtime, and its lack of interesting musical motives make it a big, ugly misstep.

But rest assured that Bingham doesn’t rest on his laurels most of the time. Tomorrowland is his most varied and eclectic work to date, with highlights that range from the hopeless desolation of “No Help From God” to the almost arena-ready “Never Far Behind.” The latter is up there with the aforementioned “Southside” as the best song Bingham has ever written. Born amidst a web of echoing guitar sounds (U2, anyone?) and building into to a cathartic wall of sound, “Never Far Behind” crackles with a climactic energy that is hard to top. “How many times can I forget you if you are always on my mind?/I’ve tried so hard to outrun you, you are never far behind,” Bingham repeats throughout, as the music swells around him and brings the album to its emotional and musical peak. The only questionable thing about the whole production is why it doesn’t serve as the album’s send-off.

It’s hard to come down after a song as grandiose as “Never Far Behind,” and Bingham regresses accordingly on Tomorrowland’s closing trio. “The Road I’m On,” “Never Ending Show,” and “Too Deep to Fill” are all perfectly adequate additions, boasting the same driving tempo and derivative country-rock textures that have marked many of Bingham’s songs. But sequencing must be called into question when it dampens the impact of an album’s conclusion, and that is precisely what happens here. None of these songs are highlights, and “Too Deep to Fill,” while it certainly has some air of finality to it, feels lightweight in comparison to the emotional peak Bingham reached less than ten minutes before. This record could have been a bona-fide classic with some trimming and restructuring: ten songs, a killer opener and closer, no bloated eight minute centerpiece, and a little less filler. As is though, it’s still solid, and even some of the more “middle-of-the-road” tracks are damn good. Bingham has never sounded this lively or centered in his songwriting: he’s rarely carried so much anger and emotion with his voice, let alone on every song, and his melodies have only reached these heights on a few occasions. Chances are, his best work is still ahead of him, but for now, Tomorrowland is another fascinating statement from one of music’s most promising young players. I can’t wait to see where he goes next.

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