I’m not sure that any of us appreciate just how much the television series Yellowstone has positively impacted the independent country music scene in the past few years, and possibly nobody has been a greater beneficiary of the Yellowstone bump than Ryan Bingham. Though even his biggest proponents would admit that his most creative era is somewhere in the past, Bingham’s still out there packing venues and headlining festivals as one of the premier acts in the independent country scene.
That’s why it’s pretty disappointing that his new album Watch Out For The Wolf is such a low effort, low impact, short, and what will probably turn out to be a quickly forgotten effort from a guy that needed a mid career boost. Touted as his most raw and intimate work to date, the 7-song album was written and recorded in the wilderness of Montana. Bingham’s idea was to try and “capture a moment in time.”
Watch Out For The Wolf is the first album of Bingham’s career that he entirely produced, performed, and mixed by himself. And to be frank, you can tell this by the results. It may have been recorded in the wilderness, but it comes across more like a bedroom project. The drum tracks all feel programmed as opposed to played. Much of the instrumentation is either looped or cut-and-pasted into digital project form. The album doesn’t just seem to lack perspiration behind it. It lacks imagination as well.
This feels like one of those projects that a young and semi-skilled musician might compile the first time they interface with multi-tracking, whether they got their hands on a 4-track machine, or these days, a free download of Audacity. The album is a little self-indulgent in how it thinks things like whistles or electric guitar strums are enough to flesh these ideas out into actual songs.
That said, this lack of detailed instrumentation and soloing also can lend to a more ambient, and perhaps immersive experience for certain listeners. This is an album to get lost in (though some might just end up lost), and though the price of admission for that positive experience might be a blind loyalty to all things Ryan Bingham or a bit of psilocybin mushrooms, for some this album will be a unique enough experience to hold their interest.
Just like any album, Watch Out For The Wolf has worse and better tracks. “River of Love” with it’s mandolin and electric guitar blasts captures sort of a Springsteen-style energy, even if it basically just hangs on one single chord. On an album rather bereft of it, “This Life” finds something similar to a melody, which is welcomed by the end of the album and is underpinned by Bingham’s whistling.
But whether Ryan Bingham meant for this to be considered a side project or EP, that is how it will be regarded by time. At only 24 minutes and one track called “Internal Intermission” being nothing more than a drum-looped interlude, there’s just not enough meat and potatoes here to justify a meal, or the full LP sticker price for the physical product Bingham asked—something we’re seeing more and more of in the marketplace.
Bingham’s Dead Horses backing band and producer Marc Ford were so important in helping Bingham capture his definitive sound and finding the success he enjoyed early in his career, and that’s more and more evident the farther we get from that era. Now he feels like he’s on coast mode, including getting the Texas Gentlemen to back him up live. They’re plenty talented, but it’s just another sign of give-up that Bingham doesn’t even seem to have the initiative to field his own band these days.
Ryan Bingham is probably just not skilled enough as a musician or a producer to pull a project like Watch Out For The Wolf off. He’s a singer/songwriter who shouldn’t be afraid to solicit the help of others to flesh his ideas out.
It’s not that there isn’t a song or two to salvage from the album. It’s more the attitude and effort that he brings to it that seems to signal that Ryan Bingham needs a reset or reality check. He’s one of the biggest artists of the roots resurgence. And if he wants to remain in that important position, he needs to start acting like one, instead of just letting his acting career get him by.
1 1/4 Guns Down (4/10)
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