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Devendra Banhart - Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon

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Artist: Devendra Banhart

Album: Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon

Label: XL

Review date: Sep. 14, 2007

Over the last few years, Devendra Banhart has evolved from a fragile outsider artist, recording on other people's answering machines (Oh Me Oh My), to a favored protégé of Swans/Young God's Michael Gira (Rejoicing in the Hands, Nino Roja), to the acknowledged center of the freak-folk universe (Cripple Crow), to, finally, the oddball connection between people as disparate as Beck, Karl Lagerfeld, Gael Garcia Bernal and Vashti Bunyan.

His latest incarnation and fifth album, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, is not, perhaps, as seamlessly lovely as Rejoicing in the Hands. It is not as utterly unique and self-revealing as Oh Me Oh My. It rambles all over the place, in terms of genre and influence, as Cripple Crow did, and there are a few cringe-worthy moments ("Shabop Shalom" is pretty bad). And yet to complain about excesses or discontinuity or questionable judgment is to miss the whole point. This is Devendra Banhart…eclectic and whimsical and poking genres with a stick to see if they'll bite. It's a little mad, a lot overstuffed, and probably a degree or two calculated. Still it's intermittently very beautiful – and what other artist can count Linda Perhacs, Vashti Bunyan, the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson and Gael Garcia Bernal as backup players?

Banhart has been interested in Latin music, and particularly Tropicalia, for several years, at least dating back to Nino Roja, but never as overtly as with Smokey Rolls. Three of the 16 tracks are in Spanish and one is in Portuguese. There are unusual South American instruments in play – a charango, a cuatro and various shaken percussion. The first cut on the album, "Cristobal," sets the tone, with its feathery interplay of picked guitar parts, one conventional, the other much higher (like a ukulele, probably the charango listed in the credits). Similarly three voices intertwine in the piece, one obviously Banhart's fluttery, vibrato-laced tenor, the others softer and less fluttery; one of them is the actor Bernal, he of Amores Perros and The Science of Sleep, a new acquaintance and a surprising choice. The other is Noah Georgeson, who has been with Banhart more or less from the beginning. This fairly simple sounding, folk-Latin recording is followed by the sillier, music-hall-ish "So Long Old Bean," with its tipsy horse-clopping rhythm and trebly fantasias. It's fairly precious and a little offputting, ornamented with very lush Hollywood strings that make you wonder, right off the bat, if this is the Banhart record that will finally drive long-term fans into hiding.

But he follows that with another Tropicalia song, the trippy, hyper-rhythmic " Samba Vexillographica," which breaks near the end for an orgy of samba drums, trilled yelps and tropical bird calls. It's loose and goofy and completely fun, and with this cut Georgeson hands his armadillo-shaped charango over to Robinson.

Next is "Seahorse," Banhart's eight-minute, multi-part epic on (I think) being reincarnated as a seahorse. It starts like a beachside bossa nova, gently undulating through 6/8 guitar figures, as Banhart croons about Buddhist detachment. "And I'm done with ever wanting anything / But I can die satisfied, no desires do I hide / Not today...or for the next 1000 lives," he sings. The song picks up a little at this point, sounding a bit like the Doors, with its jazzy piano chords, vibrato-laced flute and organ haze. Banhart's singing turns more emphatic and rock-oriented here, too, growling out bluesy non sequiturs about wanting to see someone in the night sky. The cut almost turns into a 1960s psych parody near the end, with the kind of electric guitar solos you'd expect in a Jefferson Airplane cut. But somehow it hangs together rather well, excesses and all, and emerges as one of the album's best cuts.

The mid-section of the album sags a bit, starting with the weirdo-cross dressed ballad "Bad Girl". The song might be perfectly conventional except for its gender switch. Its wavering wordless chorus of "waa-waa-waa" is intended, I think, to sound like guitar but ends up sounding…just odd. "Seaside" starts well, with a lovely Brazilian guitar part and effortless, sustained notes that borrow a bit from Caetano Veloso, but then turns soft and overripe with elaborate string arrangements and massed choral harmonies.

"Shabop Shalom" is hard to listen to, a Hassid's love song set arranged in doo-wop form – simply embarrassing. There are a string of style experiments -- the gospel swagger of "Saved" (with Maxine Waters stealing the show near the end), the falsetto-flamboyant funk of "Lover," the very Os Mutantes-ish "Carmencita" and the reggae-flavored "The Other Woman." There's nothing wrong with the songs. "Carmencita," in particular, is downright enjoyable. But it feels more like Banhart playing dress up than a well-considered engagement of genres.

The disc closes on a strong note, however. In "Freely," Banhart gets the mix of sweetness and melancholy just right, the washes of strings embellishing rather than overloading the melody. Vashti Bunyan sings harmonies on this cut and, I think, just by being there, gives the song a lightness and transparency that it wouldn't otherwise have. And with "I Remember" near the end, Banhart returns to the moody piano chords that made "Autumn's Child" so memorable, his voice unaffected, his playing simple and direct. He finishes with "My Dearest Friend," singing with long-time muse Bunyan and newer protégé Matteah Baim. With these last three songs, you remember why it's good to have Banhart around. Who else could bring all these people and instruments and styles of music together, thumb his nose at our expectations, moon us once or twice for our pretentions, and come back with songs so quietly beautiful? Nobody else, that's who.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of Devendra Banhart

Oh Me Oh My… The Way The Day Goes By The Sun is Setting Dogs are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit

Rejoicing in the Hands

Niño Rojo

Cripple Crow

What Will We Be

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View all articles by Jennifer Kelly

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