First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2008, Volume 15, #3
Written by John Metzger
Sat March 15, 2008, 10:00 AM CDT
Ryan Bingham is only in his mid-20s, but he sounds as if he is at least twice as old. His autobiographical songs wearily wind their way along roads that last forever and highways that never end. Constantly in motion, always on the run, he paints sepia-toned portraits of how he has scraped together a lost and lonely existence while barely keeping his exhaustion at bay. Considering what heís been through, the birth of Mescalito, Binghamís major label debut, ought to be a blessing, and in a sense it is. On Ever Wonder Why, he acknowledges the salvation that he found within his music. Yet, the overriding moods that prevail over the course of the endeavor are ones of pain, sorrow, disappointment, and regret.
In an attempt to keep the effort from becoming claustrophobically dark, former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford was brought on board to produce Mescalito. He succeeded in assembling a terrific team of musicians, who dutifully bring Binghamís songs to life by supporting his raspy vocals as they search the spaces between Steve Earle, John Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen. On Southside of Heaven, for example, Bingham weaves a tale that outlines his desperate need to escape from the confining dustiness of his West Texas environment, and riding upon a steed signified by a gently rolling banjo, he gallops off into the sunset as stinging electric guitars nip at his heels. The hard-driving, country-folk groove of Bread and Water largely is informed by Joe Strummerís solo work, while the churning, workingman blues of Sunshine conveys Binghamís determination to survive.
The problem that nags at Mescalito, however, isnít an easy one to address. To put it simply, its 65-minute running length makes the set overly difficult to digest because, as it progresses, its material all begins to sound the same. Nevertheless, Bingham and Ford arenít entirely to blame. Not to take anything away from what Springsteen accomplished, but Nebraska undeniably fares better on vinyl than it does on disc, and although itís not in the same league, an equivalent statement could be made about Mescalito.
Thereís something magical about the ritual of getting up between sides in order to flip a record over. This process not only gives the listener an opportunity to reflect upon what has been heard, but it also divides an endeavor into smaller, more accessible acts. Without the natural breaks that vinyl provides, however, the subtle distinctions that lie within a work, particularly one that varies very little from track to track, can become lost in a monotonic haze. Consequently, efforts like Mescalito are done a disservice by the digital age. They donít fare well when they are played in sequence without interruption, and their potential is unrealized when they are dismembered into standalone songs that can be played on an iPod. Bound together by a unifying theme, these sorts of efforts demand to be heard from start to finish, yet they also need to be parsed in pieces. For the record, Mescalito is not without its flaws, but if the set had been issued 30 years ago, it surely would have been heightened by its presentation as a double album. Regardless, its songs are terrific, and they certainly give Bingham a firm footing for taking the promise that he shows and constructing something more.
Mescalito is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box