2009 / Music

Review: Devendra Banhart Continues Free-Spirited Wanderings On New Disc

Freak-Folk Icon Releases Major Label Debut

From outward appearances, singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart wouldn’t appear to feel encumbered by much of anything.

Photo: Reprise Records

Photo: Reprise Records

Whether it’s by posing completely naked for an album cover or cross-dressing for photo shoots or babbling in interviews like an acid-damaged loony, perceptions of the free-spirited Banhart would seem like a collection of flower-child stereotypes if it all wasn’t so true. But, all of these idiosyncrasies helped crown him as the Rasputin-bearded king of the nascent “freak folk” scene. Armed with his acoustic guitar, a sometimes silly, quivering voice and a heap of far-out lyrics, Banhart has unintentionally become the svengali of a neo-hippie movement simmering within the indie-rock underground. At the same time, he has lured into his orbit a large pack of like-minded adherents who look too much like the descendants of Charles Manson’s Family and are just as committed to Banhart’s laissez-faire, genre-hopping explorations and experimentations with his Woodstock-era influences over the course of several albums.

And yet, the protective, cultish cocoon that has coalesced around Banhart has likely stilted his development and his hippy-dippy persona has surely made many underestimate his talents as songwriter and performer. To set things straight, the singer’s new album, “What Will We Be,” is a much-needed break with his modus operandi. Now signed to a major label, Banhart has plotted the new record to capture his first tentative steps away from the communal sing-along-between-bong-hits vibe that permeated his old releases. This is a streamlined, more mature work.

To study the album sleeve, however, listeners might not note the fundamental shift taking place here. Like Banhart’s preceding album, “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon,” the new disc features the same contributions from Banhart’s usual gaggle of devoted longhairs. Steady wingman/guitarist Noah Georgeson and drummer Greg Rogove, Banhart’s chief helper in goof-rock side project Megapuss, are ever dutiful throughout while bassist Luckey Remington, a scene favorite, and Little Joy guitarist Rodrigo Amarante again prove their growing utility for adapting Banhart’s fleeting inspirations. And yet, “What Will We Be” consciously stretches out from the group-think of Banhart’s past efforts.

Helping Banhart leverage this shift, he turned to someone outside his circle for a collaborator to help him steer the project: Paul Butler from a Band of Bees. While Butler’s British group remains little known in the U.S., the band’s eclectic tastes and psychedelic overtones only partially distract from the sharp production employed on their three-album-deep catalog. Banhart and Butler’s new partnership most likely blossomed over a shared love of influences, most particularly the leading figures of the ’60s Tropicalia movement in Brazil. Banhart has been vocal in his praise for Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Os Mutantes while Butler’s Bees’ covered an Os Mutantes’ track on their first record. Whatever obscure CDs that may share obsessions with, Butler obviously took away a greater appreciation for productions techniques than Banhart. For the new album, he at least managed to birth the best sounding of Banhart’s records.

Taking a step back, “What Will We Be” isn’t the most inspired of the singer’s album. His 2004 release, “Cripple Crow,” still stands unmatched as a weird melodic masterpiece even though it sounded like the musicians tracked the brilliantly strange songs in between puffs on a hookah. However, “What Will We Be” has on its side is greater focus, crisper vocals and perhaps most importantly, a better rhythmic sense as the ensemble shifts from acoustic pop to soft bop to ska to wild-eyed show tunes. There’s no concept beyond just making every song of love and loopy-iness really shine.

The record is Banhart’s first since the end of his public dalliance with actress Natalie Portman, but anyone expecting any breakup songs will have to sift through a few pseudonyms and they won’t find any bitter denunciations. Banhart sounds unsurprisingly amiable on first single “Baby.” He compliments his love for exposing him to the lighter side as two guitars chirp back and forth at each other to a rhythm as energetic as a spring stroll. A power-pop chorus, overlaid with doo-wop background vocals and wah-wah guitar whines, punch the song into Motown territory before sliding again into a relaxed strut. Similarly sweet is the acoustic-guitar ditty “Angelika,” which is such throwback to troubadour material mastered by Cat Stevens and Nico that the song seems destined for a future Wes Anderson movie soundtrack.

The feelings that Banhart expresses aren’t always so joyous. The album’s emotional core is the dark couplet of “First Song For B” and “Last Song For B.” The two tracks are definitely mood changers as the mirth and frivolity of the majority of the record is dispelled momentarily by a seriousness and overall colder mood. For the first song, Banhart is backed by a piano refrain and light conga beat as he croons a string of nonsensical images (Examples: “Watch the stream run beside you,” “Watch the Indian chief,” “I give myself to you alone”). The intensity that’s been building finally explodes with Banhart creepily pleading, “Please destroy me!” While it appears he’s talking to the one who broke his heart, maybe he’s also speaking to a world that’s largely ridiculed him. “Last Song For B” isn’t quite so stark and suggests a recovery from the depths. Waves of acoustic guitar notes spray out like a harp. Banhart’s lyrics remain obtuse as he’s really drawing out a melody to express his pain. Banhart’s reaching for something and using his songwriting to expel deep-seated feelings, but he doesn’t push the songs to make the full transition from being strictly therapeutic sketches to full-born melodic pieces.

Like a passing storm, the record’s tenor changes back to good times as Banhart’s whims now extend into new stylistic arenas. “Chin Chin & Muck Muck” is a taste of Parisian nightclub jazz, expertly recreated with brushes on drums and Banhart’s manic vocals constrained to a deep, soft monotone. As expected, the music spirals into a silly direction occasionally when he leads the players into an acoustic guitar segue way featuring plenty of singing gibberish and mimicking brass sounds. A far better passing fancy is the Specials’ imitation that Banhart and chums pull off with “Walilamdzi.” The rhythm section tackles the complicated ska cadences expertly while Banhart and backing vocalists trade lines to anchor a fantastic hook. It all proves these hippies can conform to a genre defined by rigid discipline and rise to the challenge.

Another surprising turn comes with “16th & Valencia, Roxy Music,” Banhart’s first foray into ’70s dance-pop music. He hisses the vocals to a throbbing bass line that pulsates and underpins the guitar flutterings and the Brazilian percussion. “Rats” is also defined by its lower end. A sneaking bass lick that refers back to Jane’s Addiction’s Eric Avery and likewise, the song slowly builds off those simple murmurs into a schizoid pastiche of high-energy musical episodes. The guitars veer off into Eastern motifs from metal-ish skronks. Banhart is the shaman manipulating the process — pulling the band up, then pushing them out and then reeling them back in.

Pulling more people in is the underlying scheme to “What Will We Be.” Like any leader, Banhart seems to know what he needs to do to musically lead and he’s becoming more savvy at what accommodations he needs to make to grow his base. “Not everyone can relate/To what you and I appreciate,” Banhart once sang in one of many odes to his circle of acolytes, and yet he now seems unwilling to remain a best-kept secret of those in the know.

“What Will We Be” will enrich listeners’ appreciation for Banhart and company’s talents, but isn’t the breakthrough that he and his backers might be counting on. This notwithstanding shouldn’t qualify the record as a disappointment. It demonstrates his growth and show a crucial self-awareness that isn’t easily obtained.

Beneath the hair and hijinx, there’s a canniness that will push him artistically to the next level and keep him evolving.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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