The messiah has returned. He’s still a bearded hippie, but now he’s dressing up in drag. It’s a freaky look on a folkie. Funny, I thought Devendra Banhart preferred the Naturalismo sobriquet. Now, I’m not saying it’s un-natural for a dude to look like a lady; still, I can’t but feel that Banhart is trying to further break down our assumptions about what it means to be a folk musician in the 21st century (if he’s actually a folk musician at all, that is).
On 2005’s excellent Cripple Crow (our review here), Devendra took a big stride away from the rickety indie folk beginnings of his 2002 debut, Oh Me Oh My…. Out with the four-track and in with the strings. Even with a more lush and varied sound, though, Cripple Crow was still folk music.
On his fifth full-length, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, Devendra Banhart has expanded far enough beyond even his own frayed fringes of folk that he’s now creating a different sort of music altogether. Philosophically, I think this statement would suit the artist just fine. He’s never wanted to be boxed in, and now he’s finally hopped out of the box altogether. Interestingly, he’s made this leap by crafting a record filled with obvious nods to very familiar reference points.
For instance, a few minutes into the lengthy “Seahorse”, you’ll wonder if your player hasn’t gone haywire. Is this a mash-up of Dave Brubeck and the Doors? Hey, it’s a groovy little storm Devendra’s riding, so let’s just roll with ol’ Smokey. We dip into country rock on “Bad Girl”, which matches the crying sounds of slide guitar with Banhart’s own “wah, wah, wah"s. “Shabop Shalom” is a mid-tempo sock-hop doo-wop ditty, complete with a narrated intro. Although the reference points are 1950s clichés, Devendra’s lyrics about hibiscus scents and “sweet, supple breasts” that are “golden ghettos” (presumably because that rhymes with “stilettos”; or maybe her chest truly is that socio-economically evocative). The garagey “Tonada Yanomaminista” is the album’s most overt rocker, with insistent quadruple snare drum snaps and overdriven vocals about … well, how am I supposed to know? It’s a Devendra Banhart song, after all. But Nature seems to play the part of the protector, as is apropos of Naturalismo.
Banhart isn’t content with merely mining the predominantly white-dude genre of rock ‘n’ roll, though. On back-to-back tracks, he searches for his inner blackness. “Saved” is, of course, a gospel number, complete with Hammond organ and rapturous backing choir. “Lover”, meanwhile, is sunny and lightly funky late ‘60s R&B. Motown won’t come calling anytime soon, but he (and his backing musicians) make these sounds work well, blending these other flavors into the Banhart aesthetic. Likewise the sleepy reggae of “The Other Woman”, wherein Devendra’s dress-wearing in his press photos takes on added significance, as he assumes the perspective of the titular character.
Nor is the singer-songwriter content to work solely within the confines of the English language. As he’s done in the past, Banhart shows the influence of a childhood spent in Caracas, Venezuela. Over the course of the album, he offers quatro canciones sung in his light, stone-skipping-on-water Spanish: opening cut “Cristobal”, with its lovely woodwind motif; “Rosa”, a prettily melancholic duet with Rodrigo Amarante of Los Hermanos, is built on a piano part that seems to emanate through the walls of a parlor and from another time; “Carmensita” is a sultry, Santana-esque rocker; “Samba Vexillographica” is the study of flags set to a Brazilian rhythm (or so the title implies; I really have no idea).
At 16 tracks, a playing time of 71 minutes, and with so many stylistic leaps, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon could be an exhausting experience, and yet it sails smoothly by, neatly and breezily navigating the rough waters of such an ambitious project. Thankfully, the album doesn’t leave behind the heavy footprint of “Ambitious Project” in its wake. Banhart’s execution appears as effortless as a Roger Federer forehand winner. In other words, Devendra makes greatness look easy.
That said, a slightly lackluster trio of final tracks keeps Smokey a rung below the pair of classic of albums—Cripple Crow and 2004’s Rejoicing in the Hands—that preceded it. Those three songs are pretty, but they’re less compelling than the rest of the disc’s material. Considering the strength of this album, that criticism seems a little nitpicky. At this level of artistry, though, a small letdown is that much more noticeable. The word “artistry” may seem awkward when pinned to a maverick like Banhart, but he’s proved himself to be one of the key musicians of the decade, consistently generating high quality recordings, while nurturing an entire indie folk revolution. Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is another very fine achievement in the still young, but immensely satisfying and always intriguing, career of Devendra Banhart.