The first thing that strikes you about Ryan Bingham is his voice. Only 25, Bingham has lived a hardscrabble life, leaving home early and making his around the southwestern rodeo circuit, traveling and getting by. So the Texas twang comes naturally, as does the gravel in his voice. And there’s a lot of gravel in his voice. Sometimes, it sounds like it must be painful.
Produced by former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford, Mescalito wisely puts Bingham’s voice and lyrics up front, taking full advantage of their dustiness. The opening track “Southside of Heaven”, dominated by windswept harmonica and punctuated by pedal steel and mandolin, evokes trains, family estrangement, and loneliness, and kicks the album off on a strong footing. The up tempo standout track “Bread and Water” lists Bingham’s road experiences atop a heavy backbeat, boot stomps, handclaps, and slide guitar. “Boracho Station” features south-of-the-border acoustic guitar and alternates Spanish and English lyrics. Several of Mescalito‘s songs indicate that Bingham might well be an artist to watch.
His songs definitely benefit from the lived-in quality of Bingham’s lyrics. “Ever Wonder Why” progresses from images of hardship and tough choices to the creative energy he gains from his chosen lifestyle: “And what you’re hearing now / Is something I found / Hidin’ way down inside”. In “Ghost of Travelin’ Jones” (featuring fellow Texan Terry Allen on piano and vocals), he asks, “Tell me the secrets of an endless road”, only to be told, “It’s not where you’ve been, son / It’s what you understand”. Throughout Mescalito, Bingham’s lyrics document a restless search, one that’s informed by embracing the past and choices made.
Even so, Mescalito often sounds tentative. There are plenty of upbeat slide-guitar-and-stomp numbers, but overall, Mescalito favors a safe mid tempo pace. There’s just enough variety to prevent the disc from miring itself in sameness, but Bingham and his band, the Dead Horses, tend to stay polite with their playing. Despite Bingham’s rasp, and the trials documented by his lyrics, Mescalito is surprisingly devoid of edge.
All of which makes Mescalito an enjoyable album, but one that doesn’t quite live up to the expectations that it raises in its early moments, when Bingham’s rasp and the band’s sympathetic playing hint at a truly unique sound. As it turns out, Mescalito does contain unique moments, but it never sheds the feel of a debut record. Mescalito revives a number of tracks from Bingham’s previous self-released discs, and it would be interesting to hear any differences that might be the result (for better or for worse) of Mescalito‘s presumably bigger budget.
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