Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon
I think we have been postmodern long enough that we are post-postmodern. Not has everything already been done, but its all been redone and refitted into the Moebius strip timeline at such an alarming rate, we might have passed ourselves up, flipping us off from the passenger side window. Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family are groups I consider at the forefront of this post-postmodernism, working square pegs of obvious, defiant anachronism into the round holes of Now.
Banhart woke many things in me when I first heard Oh Me Oh My in all its starchild glory. A spiral of acoustic twinkling came issuing out of his deft finger-picking and weird demeanor. The twin releases Rejoice in the Hands and Nino Rojo only confirmed my suspicions that we had a minor messiah on our hands. To this day, hundreds of listens later, Rejoice still makes me shudder with amazement. Unfortunately, much of the adoring indie public felt the same way and radiated that back on this innocent boy, inflating what I suspect was an already healthy ego to Hindenburg proportions, and he was granted license to ignore the maturity that came with Rejoice and further explore the kookiness that record had excised from Banhart's shtick - resulting in the resoundingly goofy Cripple Crow. I loved it when it appeared, my review attests to it, but that feeling quickly faded. I thought the songs sounded like the product of pointed stylistic exercises rather than hard-won, heartfelt sentiment. We wanted him to be The New Weird, and weird he became without the legs to stand tall above that weirdness.
So here we are two years later, after all the praise and mythologizing, and we see his Titanic slowly turning back from the siren song of icebergs, on to friendlier waters. This album has much of the same problems as Cripple Crow, but the high points are higher and the lows, while less frequent, are lower. The first three tracks "Cristobal," "So Long Old Bean" and "Samba Vexillographica" demonstrates his amazing dexterity with a feather light melody, this time taking things down an perfumed road of Martin Denny exotica. I went through an exotica phase too, so I understand its allure and Banhart wears the tiki head well. The songs echo on their tiny spaces perfectly like an island breeze.
Then "Seahorse" appears; the first big rock number. It sounds implausibly like Simple Minds reinterpreting The Moody Blues, all the more implausible because it totally works. "Bad Girl" leans back into reverb heavy Beatlesque haze that Wilco demonstrates so well on Sky Blue Sky, and "Seaside" gets even more lost in a fluffy cloud of dream.
If only the album had stopped there.
"Shabop Sahalom" is downright embarrassing, from its "Atlantis"- style spoken intro on into its cringey doo-wop romp through Jewish clich?ï¿½s. "When I'm ever in a foul mood, I gotta see you in your Talmud... closely replacing "who wrote the book of love" with "who wrote the Book of Job? Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls" I'm all for irrevence, and really don't hold much in the religious realm to be sacrosanct, but this song is asinine and offensive. Then the spectre of Simple Minds rears its heads again on "Tonada Yanomaninsta" without any zeppelin pulling it our of the muck. "Rosa' gains some ground, but is rather mired in Latin lover gravitas. Various other stylistic costumes are subsequently and without particular failr, donned: "Saved" in its gospel robes, "Lover" in its go-go boots, "Carmensita" in black velvet and rum punch hangovers. Honestly, none of it is terrible, but I know what this cat is capable of. I don't need to see his dexterity with orchestration, I want to hear his quivering voice and his brilliant guitar work. He doesn't have to stay an elf forever, but he doesn't need to evolve into a lounge lizard either.
I won't even comment on the trite, phoned-in reggae of "The Other Woman."
The last three songs bring this train back on track. "Freely" is positively resplendent, with Devendra making bedroom eyes over a extremely subdued orchestra, strings and oboe and all. "I Remember" brings him back to the rattly piano melancholy that made me love this guy back in 2004 on Rejoice. The last track, "My Dearest Friend" opens with a string section swell like a Technicolor sunset and quickly descends into his guitar and banjo and his quiet voice. The effect is breathtaking, like watching a bird soar over water. With its growing choir, and lazy bossa nova that might play in the background as one goes into the light in an indie movie death scene, this song might be the strongest on the record and shows that, when he grabs the reins of his muse, he can really take you somewhere special, and even a little magical.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com