Ryan BinghamRyan Bingham remembers his debut at Los Angeles club The Mint a few years ago. "It was one of the first gigs we ever played," he said, adding with a laugh, "It was just to the bar staff."

My, how things have changed. A few years and an Academy Award for Best Original Song later, Ryan and his band, the Dead Horses, were back. On June 30, The Mint was full of journalists and music industry types in a private showcase to preview tunes from his August 24 Lost Highway album, 'Junky Star.' Ryan is now an artist of such weight that the lyrics of his new songs were handed out at the door.

And what lyrics they are. As Ryan unspooled through track after track from 'Star,' the hapless characters sprung to life. They are out of time and out of chances; often a gun and a needle look like their only friends.

You want bleak? Ryan sang 'Hallelujah' from the perspective of a dead man after a robber shoots him. 'The Wandering' started off sounding like a cousin to Neil Young's 'Heart of Gold,' but the mid-tempo tune came with a heavy warning of pretty false promises: "Won't you let a friend help you remember / with every box of poison / there's a ribbon tied." On the bleak, spare title track, which comes off like a worthy outtake from Bruce Springsteen's 'Nebraska,' Ryan sings, "The man came to shake my hand and rob me of my farm / I shot him dead and hung my head and drove off in his car." Shades of Johnny Cash's classic, 'Reno.'

Ryan indirectly blamed the economy and his move to California four years ago for the downtrodden lyrics. "You go down to Venice and walk on the boardwalk and see the homeless people," he says. "I don't know if I directly admit to writing about it, but maybe the [feelings] are incorporated."

By comparison, when Ryan launched into 'The Weary Kind,' which won the aforementioned Oscar as the theme to 'Crazy Heart,' it sounded downright uplifting.

Following their work together on that movie, Ryan turned to T Bone Burnett to helm 'Junky Star' and his mentor's influence shows. The songs were focused and tight, with the lyrics sharpened to a razor's edge. As Ryan joked, it felt good to sing some new songs because after running the Oscar promotional gauntlet, "I'm sure people thought ['The Weary Kind'] was the only song I knew how to play." Last night showed quite the contrary.