Ryan Bingham, ‘Fear and Saturday Night’ – Album Review
If Ryan Bingham had started making records 40 or 50 years ago, he could have achieved household name status -- his rootsy, appealingly ragged sound would have fit right in alongside Dylan, the Band, and any number of the acoustic-driven troubadours who were eventually enshrined as the founding fathers of the Americana format. These days, the artists who reside in that end of the rock spectrum tend to be rewarded with niche-level sales, but in the early years of his career, Bingham seemed like he might be destined for something different; after releasing a pair of LPs through the Lost Highway imprint, he scored a gig writing songs for the Jeff Bridges movie 'Crazy Heart,' earning an Oscar and a Golden Globe along the way.
Those are just the kinds of unexpected accolades that are supposed to lead to bigger things, and from the outside, it seemed like Bingham was in a perfect position, recording for an indie that offered him an opportunity to make his music while subsidizing a career that looked like it was ready to reap fame and fortune. But unlike a lot of young artists who've stood at that particular crossroads, Bingham turned his back on the whole thing, opting out of his deal and starting his own label -- and while it seemed like a mildly curious decision at the time, his recent efforts have filled in the picture of a restless artist who clearly values personal control of his art over increased financial security.
That filling in continues with 'Fear and Saturday Night,' the 12-track follow-up to 2012's 'Tomorrowland.' Shaving roughly 10 minutes off its predecessor's length, 'Fear' also winnows down its sonic palette, favoring stripped-down arrangements over thick production and sprawling song length. For longtime fans, this collection may feel like a retrenchment of sorts -- a return to the dusty sepia rasp of 'Mescalito,' his 2007 debut.
But if this is ground Bingham has covered before, that doesn't mean it's a retreat; if 'Tomorrowland' displayed a willingness to experiment, 'Fear and Saturday Night' serves as a reminder that he's an artist who understands how to play to his growing strengths as a songwriter and performer. For a guy whose vocal range is roughly the length of a cigarette, he's a singer with a deceptive amount of depth -- and although his forte may always remain the sort of mournful, rumpled morning-after ballad he must have marinated in during his time on the rodeo circuit, he can also deliver a rocker with a mean, swaggering hook.
That's all in evidence here, from the autobiographical world-weariness of the opening track, 'Nobody Knows My Trouble,' right on through to the ambling, harmonica-laced closer, 'Gun Fightin Man.' In between lies all manner of country-kissed rock 'n' roll goodness, including the walloping, fuzz-toned 'Top Shelf Drug,' the Mexicali party 'Adventures of You and Me,' the quietly seething manifesto 'My Diamond Is Too Rough,' and the lovely ode to devotion 'Snow Falls In June.'
That's a loose survey of some highlights from 'Fear and Saturday Night,' but truly, there aren't any real missteps here. Listeners who wondered how much further Bingham might expand his sound after 'Tomorrowland' may need a brief period of readjustment; those who missed the simpler approach of earlier efforts may feel like he's come home again. But as he's determinedly proving with each release, every album's just a snapshot on the journey from an artist who's fought for his right to travel wherever he likes. His royalty statements may have suffered, but we're all richer for it where it counts.