Cue a montage video of Devendra Banhart training Rocky-style, possibly to the strains of “Eye of the Tiger.” But instead of running, jumping rope and slapping a speed bag, Banhart’s brushing through his beard, putting on tribal makeup and separating seeds from his doobage. In the past few years, Banhart has gone from obscurity to cultural icon, and in the past two years, back into the shadows. In pretty much every article that contains his name, he’s saddled with the responsibility of not only beginning, but progressing the `freak folk’ movement, if such a movement even exists. Yet, after 2005’s Cripple Crow, it became apparent that he didn’t feel at all handcuffed by the press, letting his music veer off into multiple directions. Fast-forward two years later to the present day, and we find that our bearded hero is venturing off into even more strange places. With Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, Banhart seems to defy genre, gender and even human sanity, but in a good way.
We’ve always known that Devendra wasn’t quite born in the right era, but thankfully for us, he’s all ours. In a way, with this album, he manages to time travel back to a past in which he would probably have been far more comfortable, the late ’60s and early ’70s Laurel Canyon / Topanga scene. Banhart is now managed by the same guy who steered the careers of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and David Crosby, and there’s a little of each of them and their respective pasts on Smokey, but this album is not so easily pigeonholed. In fact, I’ve never heard an album more `all over the place.’ With its cardboard-toned cover art and delicate opener, “Cristobal,” one would think this would be a return to the folk-freakery of Rejoicing in the Hands, but the roll down thunder canyon holds more turns than Mulholland Drive. “Cristobal,” by the way, is seemingly about Christopher Columbus, as that is his name in Spanish, the song is sung in Spanish, with lyrics such as “there is another world than this,” (translated) and “Go home Yankee” (untranslated). I’ve heard of guest musicians, but Gael Garcia Bernal as one of the three vocalists?
“Samba Vexillographica” finds Banhart going back to more familiar ground as he emulates one of his musical influences, Caetano Veloso. Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes apparently guests on this track, not that anyone would ever notice. Let’s face it, the album doesn’t really even begin until “Seahorse.” If I were basing my entire review on the strength of one song, this would be it, but as this album contains sixteen songs, that’s not going to cut it. “Seahorse” is quite possibly one of the best songs that Devendra Banhart has ever written. It’s an epic, genre-hopping intense journey of a song. It starts out slow, much like the first three tracks on Smokey, but then turns into a Dave Brubeck jazz crusade. Then, a minute into the jazz we delve into Ray Manzarek organs with Banhart playing the part of Jim Morrison to a tee. But that’s not all. Later, Banhart maintains the Morrison vibe, but the music is purely Grateful Dead. This is the most unrestrained and `rock and roll’ I’ve ever heard Devendra Banhart, and it fits nicely.
I seem to remember, but can’t find the evidence, so don’t hold me to it, that I read an interview in which Banhart expressed his dislike over bands changing gender within lyrics when covering a song. I frankly hate it as well. Can’t we just get over our hang-ups with sexuality and not worry about whether we say `he’ or `she?’ Banhart takes this one step further on Smokey, as he claims himself a “Bad Girl” (in a song not unlike the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down”) and “The Other Woman” (which apes dub tracks like the Specials’ “Ghost Town”). Donovan meets ’50s sock-hop in “Shabop Shalom,” probably the biggest WTF moment on the album, if not his career. It’s not that the song doesn’t sound good, the atmospheric echoes seem to capture a certain era, but it’s more `Weird Al’ than homage. And in yet another case of the `invisible’ guest star, Nick Valensi, guitarist for the Strokes, provides some backup vocals. Huh? I’ve always felt that guest appearances should have some kind of purpose or impact on a record. For instance, if you have Antony Hegarty guest on your album, have him sing or play piano, not play bongos. That may be an extreme nonexistent example, but I’m making a point. The classic rock comes roaring back, along with the Jim Morrison impression, in “Tonada Yandomaminista.” One wonders if the ghosts of rockers past inhabited the studio / house in Topanga Canyon in which Banhart recorded this album.
“Saved” finds Banhart diving into Joe Cocker blues / gospel territory, complete with a vocal choir. “Lover” is one of my personal favorite tracks from the album, sounding like a long lost Jackson 5 tune. It’s sheer pop candy, but it’s a blast. “Carmensita” is more of a laid-back soul version of a Santana track. At this point, huge fans of Devendra’s older stuff, and they are legion, will be welcomed by “Freely,” a paean to living life in your own way. Somehow, I could easily see Banhart playing this song on a new incarnation of The Muppet Show, surrounded by timid, yet curious woodland creatures. That would be awesome. “I Remember” is a near dead-ringer for the Smiths’ “Asleep,” with Banhart’s lone voice traipsing over a forlorn piano track. It and the last track, “My Dearest Friend,” featuring the entrancing Vashti Bunyan, are results of a breakup with CocoRosie’s Bianca Casady, and as we all know, breakups make the best albums, especially when they’re recorded in California.
When it comes right down to it, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is not quite the E-ticket ride its title made it out to be. I didn’t have to, as I stated in our Fall preview, hold on to my hat and glasses, mainly because it was less like a rollercoaster and more like a bumpy cobblestone road. It’s aesthetically pleasing, but uncomfortable in parts. The quiet, folkier tracks are purely classic Devendra, sure to please his many followers. The genre-hopping diversions, as opposed to those on Cripple Crow, are hit or miss. Some, like “Seahorse,” are instantly and consistently likeable and listenable. Others, such as “Shabop Shalom” are somewhat zany and distracting. Luckily, the good far outweighs the bad on Smokey. And remember, `Only You Can Prevent Beard Tangles.’
Akron/Family- Love is Simple
Donovan- Troubador: The Definitive Collection
The Doors- L.A. Woman