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Ryan Bingham's 'Junky Star' shines

Ryan Bingham is a highwayman, a drifter in need of escape, a throwback to the times of outlaws and outcasts, to the days of Willie, Waylon and Merle. The 29-year-old New Mexico native is a misfit — albeit one with an Oscar, a Golden Globe and smatterings of critical gush. The award-winning penner of Crazy Heart theme The Weary Kind, Bingham has teamed again with movie partner T Bone Burnett to release Junky Star, in stores this week, 12 new tracks of loneliness, alienation and, when you least expect it, hope. It's a marvel.

It's also bleak as heck; Bingham's unique Marlboros-and-barbed-wire vocal wasn't made for happy songs, don'tcha know. But backed by his leathered Dead Horses band, the guy is too savvy a troubador to simply tell sad-sack tall tales. His array of broken characters (for instance The Poet of the Dylanesque opener) are wary of the darkness but plunge headfirst anyway.

Toned with a pervasive mood that sucks you in like cinema, the album's main strength lies in the faint flicker of better times. You take what you can get. "All I need is you / In this Depression / What is there to lose?" Bingham croaks on the painfully topical Depression, a song both withering and bold, producer Burnett conjuring a dusty wall of defiance behind the pained singer. With the hobo-hop of a good Tom Petty song, The Wandering ("Step into the unknown / Where your path rewinds / See if you can find out what you came here for") encourages a nomadic breakaway as a salve for modern ailments.

Burnett is usually known for a voodoo vibe (see Raising Sand with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant), but here he gives Bingham a relatively straightforward roots-rock landscape — a truck-stop at midnight, a forgotten honky-tonk — only sneaking in his spooky tremolo guitar on the closing All Choked Up Again. These guys make quite a pair. Despite their newfound Hollywood success, Bingham and Burnett aren't in a rush for more fame, more trophies. Instead, they're hitting the open road, longing to get lost and found.

The School Bus Playlist

I was a nervous kid. Not sure what the modern medical diagnosis would be, but back then I believe the clinical term was "Barfy Magee." I was especially sobby and hurl-prone when it came to school. It didn't take much for me to heave Froot Loops, especially anticipating the scarring 8-minute bus ride to school. The horror! That's why — 33 years later — I was an absolute wreck taking my oldest, 6-year-old Kid Lulu, to her very first bus stop. Lu is a smart kid, but in the early going, she shared her father's propensity for projectile vomiting at the slightest sign of stress. Alas, when her big looming bus finally arrived, my first-grader offered me a confident squeeze and bounded onto the beast, her blond bob of hair bouncing, her little pink backpack swaying. The driver gave me an understanding smile — which instantly faded when I got on the bus, too. Now let me explain: I just wanted to make sure Lulu was safe. Turns out she was safe — and mortified: "Dad, what are you doing?!" The driver was on me fast: "SIR, PARENTS ARE NOT ALLOWED ON THE SCHOOL BUS!" I put my hands up, my voice tinged with more than a bit of crazy-man defense: "Hey, that's cool, leaving the bus. Just making sure she was okay." So I left, waving to a relieved Lulu. When I realized neither my daughter nor I barfed, I smiled. And when I realized neither one of us had cried, well . . .

1. Let Me Ride, Dr. Dre

2. Yellow, Coldplay

3. Baby Driver, Simon and Garfunkel

4. Throw It Up, Lil' Jon & the Eastside Boyz

5. Another One Rides the Bus, "Weird" Al Yankovic

6. Wheels, Foo Fighters

7. Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell

8. Busload of Faith, Lou Reed

9. Bus Stop, the Hollies

10. Goodbye Girl, David Gates

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Ryan Bingham's 'Junky Star' shines 09/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 3, 2010 3:46pm]
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