I said to all my friends, “When I have kids, I’m gonna want the child to be a long haired child.”
This chorus from “Long Haired Child,” the fourth song from Devendra Banhart’s latest album, Cripple Crow, speaks volumes. In a sixties Love or Doors style, Banhart sings about wanting to have a child like himself, someone with a free spirit. What it represents is the album as a whole, an eclectic mix of songs that will sure to be considered some of Banhart’s best. Cripple Crow is an expansive record with influences ranging from sixties folk and psychedelia to South American jazz vocals. The Beatles influence on this record is so prevalent, that the cover is even done in what can only be called as Banhart’s mountain man version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Banhart sits crouched, the only figure with head down, with what appear to be crow wings sprouting out of his back. Ghostlike heads float in the trees behind the group photo as what appears to be the gas-masked figure of death looms over all. One could simply study the cover alone, but then they’d miss the gems hidden within this epic masterpiece.
“Now That I Know” kicks the album off as what you’d imagine would happen if Led Zeppelin reaaalllly slowed things down, like “Going to California” on Valium. In it, Banhart sings, “And God forbid you care, it’s enough to get you in a whole lot of trouble.” “Heard Somebody Say” continues in a political vein, as Banhart croons in a Dusty Springfield way about how people say the war is over, but we all know it’s not true. “It’s simple / We don’t want to kill,” says Banhart in the simplest and strongest words imaginable. “Lazy Butterfly” continues the hippie hit parade in a T. Rex meets Jefferson Airplane manner. “I Feel Just Like a Child” is a blues / dance number that celebrates youthful attitudes. “The Beatles” starts out with the lyric, “Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are the only Beatles in the world” before the song becomes a Spanish language flamenco number. One gets the sense that Banhart is more influenced by the other half of the Beatles, the more hippie-like Lennon and Harrison. “When They Come” is like a Neil Young meets Bob Dylan tune with a dreamy chorus that features the title character of the Cripple Crow. All this only gets us halfway through the album and I haven’t even mentioned the Caetano Veloso inspired songs peppered throughout! Banhart’s mother is Venezuelan and he was raised in Caracas for a time, so he is fluent in Spanish. Veloso’s Portuguese and English songs have been remarked as some of Banhart’s favorites and his vocal style is quite similar.
“Hey Mama Wolf” is one of my early favorites from the album, sounding like a Northwestern nature lover’s version of the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.” “Chinese Children” is somewhat of a silly jam session, apparently part of Banhart’s popular live act. It is reportedly based on the fact that various paranoiacs think that China will invade the rest of the world and take over. The lyrics go on to say that no matter where you are from, you’ll have Chinese children. “Little Boys” evokes Van Morrison in its jazz / blues / fifties crooning. The plucking fifties doo-wop guitar is something we haven’t heard from Banhart, but no surprise, he pulls it off. “Anchor” ends the album shortly and sweetly, with just Devendra and a piano, much like Ringo and his lullaby at the end of The Beatles (White Album).
Whereas Banhart’s previous albums were pared down eccentric folk, this is the full-fledged version, complete with piano, strings and friends to sing backup and bang on stuff. I fell in love with Rejoicing in the Hands and later Niño Rojo, and thought that I couldn’t fall any further. I was dead wrong. Cripple Crow has proven to me that there is no limit to Devendra Banhart’s talent and potential, that he can do nearly everything, and do it extremely well. I think that I must feel how Beatles fans felt when they went from the early albums to Rubber Soul and Revolver, as if a whole new world had opened up before me and I had limitless choices as to my path. Go ahead and add this one to your top ten lists for the year, I know I will.