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Devendra Banhart - Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 November 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    5
sound:    7
released:    2007
label:    Young God
reviewer:    Matt Fink

ImageThough the everyman shtick works well for country singers and Bruce Springsteen, it seems generally true that we want our pop stars to be more eccentric, more glamorous, more talented, more screwed up – in short, more interesting – than we are. From Frank Sinatra to Elvis, Michael Jackson to Kurt Cobain, the personae of the people behind the music is often every bit as important as the music itself. And in an era where every substantial artist can be traced through tabloids, blogs and poor quality YouTube videos, an artist simply can’t survive without putting forth a personality that makes him or her more interesting than the person standing ahead of you in line at the market. After all, art is escapism to a certain degree, and if an artist is really no different than you, how exactly can you escape from the drudgery of your everyday life and live vicariously through their work? To that extent, Devendra Banhart offers escapism of the highest order.

A longhaired neo-hippie, complete with thick beard, bellbottoms and an unkempt musical aesthetic, Banhart is a walking caricature of the ‘60s counterculture. He paints his face in symbols, rambles on in New Age and metaphysical clichés, and recently has taken to dressing in drag in press photos, quickly building an audience that is every bit as interested in following his public behavior as they are in listening to his music. Still, beneath his eccentricities lays a genuinely talented artist. Having spent his youth in Caracas, Venezuela and his formative years in San Francisco, the 26-year-old face of psychedelic folk music has maintained a remarkable pace since emerging with the creaky lo-fi solo recordings of 2002’s Oh Me Oh My. Along the way he earned the respect of old guard artists ranging from Vashti Bunyan to Beck and befriended pop tarts such as Lindsay Lohan, but his music remained doggedly idiosyncratic, using his wavering vocals and plaintively finger-picked acoustic guitar as the foundation for surreal storytelling and pan-ethnic musical experiments. Real or contrived, his affectations can run thin, but there’s no denying he’s an exceptionally talented young man. Of course, once an artist has created a monolithic persona, that person encounters a strange dilemma where everything he or she does is then interpreted through the prism of that character. The artist, having benefited from having something other than songwriting to attract attention, then has to compete with the possibility that his work may fail to live up to the most attention-grabbing sections of his bio. With Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, Banhart has made his first album where it sounds as if he’s trying to play the character he has created. Unfortunately, he doesn’t play that character very convincingly.

Backed by a band for the second time, Banhart seems eager to cast himself as an eclectic, almost cloyingly multicultural, artist, one moment singing in Spanish, the next English, the next Portuguese, and the next Yiddish. Songwriting perspectives switch back and forth too, drawing attention that, yes, he really is adopting a female perspective on the weary lap steel-drenched balladry of “Bad Girl” and the hazy reggae skip of “The Other Woman.” But for all of his personal eccentricities, Banhart’s sixth album arguably ranks as the least engaging release in his catalog simply because his songs fail to congeal into a coherent whole. Often, it’s hard to hear exactly what the fuss was all about in the first place.

Part of the reason for that diminution of Banhart’s oversized persona is due to the fact that as he has brought more musicians and collaborators into the mix, his music has become a more conventional and less stylized mix of folk and retro-rock variants. The deeply haunted and otherworldly ether of his early releases has dissolved into a texturally rich but otherwise less distinctive sound. Having holed up in a small cabin in the mountains of Santa Monica with a dozen of his closest friends, the resulting 16-track album has a spirit of spontaneity but far too many middling efforts, as if the project didn’t have anyone willing to step in and trim away the inessential pieces. Still, the best of those pieces rank among the best moments he has committed to tape.

As Banhart tends to thrive with simple arrangements that allow his vocals and lyrics to resonate, it’s not surprising that the album’s best tracks are those that stay closest to his strengths as an otherworldly balladeer. From the gorgeously ethereal opener “Cristobal,” a track with backing vocals by actor Gael Garcia Bernal and spindly charango-playing producer Noah Georgeson, to the wistful mix of solemn guitar strums and humming strings on “My Dearest Friend,” Banhart proves he is capable of revisiting the core essence of his craft. And while the album’s eclecticism does occasionally create a disjointed and unfocused feel, his experiments with flowery Brazilian pop in “Samba Vexillographica,” psychedelic pop in “Tonada Yanomaninista,” and classic gospel in “Saved” are all worthy ventures that prove his flexibility as an artist. Best of all is the multi-part “Seahorse,” a track that builds from a misty-eyed acoustic guitar ballad to a jaunty piano and organ groove before shifting into a stomping jam band riff fest. Unfortunately, by the time the album reaches its midpoint, it’s badly out of momentum.

Previously reliable for creating some whacked out nursery rhymes, bizarre anthropomorphized animals and fantastical interpersonal relationships, here Banhart stays unnecessarily close to the standard themes of love and longing. When he does stretch out, as with the goofy ‘50s-style “Shabop Shalom” and the Prince-ish funk of “Lover,” he seems to be going for laughs in favor of saying anything of substance. More than anything, though, what kills the album is the resolutely mid-tempo mood that plagues the majority of the tracks. Undeniably pretty, the piano balladry of “Rosa” and the soft rock of “Freely” are immediately forgettable, pleasant trifles that don’t stand up on repeated listens.

Ultimately, there are artists for whom a bigger-than-life persona can cover up a lack of any discernable talent, but Devendra Banhart is no Jennifer Lopez. Still, as the quality of Banhart’s creative output has been inversely related to his increasingly outlandish public behavior, it’s possible that he’s overdue for a refresher course in what made him so interesting in the first place. Though he has never been more vividly compelling as a public personality, his songwriting has never been less inspired. For an artist who naturally wrote songs so brimming with imagination and innate weirdness that an entire movement sprung up around him, he now has no clear musical center, seemingly searching his record collection for ways to successfully move to the next level of his creative development. And despite the fact that he’s admirably willing to experiment with his craft to reach that next level, very little of what he throws against the wall here sticks with the same tenacity as his earliest sonic creations. No doubt, Banhart’s still a more interesting person that most anyone who lives on your street, but Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon doesn’t offer much quality escapism.

Produced by Noah Georgeson on vintage studio equipment, the album unsurprisingly has a classic rock feel, with heavy reverb and echo drenching the rich, organic mix. Still, Banhart’s vocals sometimes get buried, and some tracks would benefit from a piano or lead guitar being placed a bit more prominently, as the carefully-balanced arrangements sap some of the strength from the less immediate tracks. On headphones or speakers, the mix is going to sound the same. Still, the dry, classic rock feel suits the arrangements undeniably well, and there’s little that could be done to prop up Banhart’s also-ran efforts.

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