Devendra Banhart has sold out! Think I?m kidding? His ?At the Hop? is being featured prominently in an English advert for Cathedral City cheese as I type this. ?Course, that begs the question, what?s new?
One of the more entertaining motifs in Martin Scorcese?s recent documentary about Bob Dylan is the idea of the Bob as some sort of trader. In 1965 Dylan went from being a figurehead of a burgeoning idealized culture to what was then perceived as just another pop star. Of course this radically simplifies a snowballing effect that was achieving full momentum across the board in 1965. Everyone was plugging in, and it?s a cynical jibe against an established voice who ?defined a generation? to crucify him for acting on his own accord: the times, they were a changin? after all.
In retrospect it?s ridiculous to consider Dylan a sell out at all, just because he invited a few buddies on stage to share the spotlight. I mean, they were really talented buddies. Yet, in 2005 this ridiculous--meaningless to many--concept of ?selling out? is still alive and well, and never more prescient on a world scale. If you don?t hit in the States, just stick with it. You?re bound to take off in the Czech Republic or Portugal.
Devendra Banhart finds himself standing on a similar slippery slope. His hair may be longer, his songs a good bit more psychedelic, yet the echoes are still there. Not to suggest he is ?the new Dylan.? Apparently that space has already been filled a few times over, but at one time he was marketed as a new hope in a sterile indie-pop/ folk landscape. The story is old news: M. Gira ?discovers? Banhart in 2002; issues the demo tape, warts and all, as his debut; and Dev is quickly embraced by outsider weirdoes and neo-folkniks alike, including yours truly. This is largely thanks to a wry, fractured world view delivered in an otherworldly croon that either burrows its way into the heart or grates the senses depending on who you are. There?s a built in audience for this sort of thing: See Daniel Johnston and Jad Fair. But Devendra was different. There was a lyrical/ poetic depth that felt far beyond his modest age. He?d either somehow tapped into a primordial, sub-reality that spoke to every isolated geek/ weirdo lucky enough to hear the album, or he?d carefully cultivated an image that he knew would a) take off in certain circles and be legitimated by those same taste-makers and b) eventually reach a universal audience. I?d guess it?s a combination of all of the above, and in no way does this diminish the overriding value of what Banhart has to say. Performance is, in a word, manipulation.
Two more LP?s followed a little over a year later, both for Young God, both quite bold and memorable in their own right. One (?Rejoicing in the Hands?) was among the finest releases in ?04, but that?s all old news now. In 2005 Banhart is bolder and louder; his statements more literal, his face more ubiquitous. ?Cripple Crow? comes to us via a major label with full band backing that includes members of Vetiver and Espers, and it?s without question a more ambitious affair. Here Banhart puts a more visible face on the scattered, vagabond personality we first came to know. He does so by opening up the sound a bit and whittling it down at the same time. He even deals more explicitly with social issues in his lyrics.
Another rockgod of the past--one Banhart is no stranger to--comes to mind; only his metamorphosis yielded sweeter fruit. Like Dylan, Marc Bolan opted for the rock star title and left the big statements blowing in the wind. In both cases, the results were electrifying and pure in a way that their previous, folkier personas never really could?ve been. I?m not saying Devendra has turned glam, but you can bet your ass he hopes to strike the same gold with this ?artistic makeover.?
The first track, ?Now That I Know,? offers some reassurance with a soaring blues folk melody and cello backing Devendra at his philosophical best, toning down the jazz accents on vocals for sake of a poetic rumination on the state of things. A recurring theme is that of getting older and younger at the same time, or at least maintaining that youthful flame; and, of course, Dev is the Pied Piper. ?Santa Da Maria Da Feira? is a shuffling Latin folk tune with shakers, flute and stoned harmonies; it shifts the momentum from the first track, but then Banhart knows how to throw a curveball. More satisfying is the quite literal ?Heard Somebody Say,? undoubtedly the most pop song here. The piano/ flute backing lends things an almost Beatlesque flavor (further reinforced by the cover image, which could be a ?Sgt. Peppers? homage with its collage of Dev and all his friends in place of the performers, religious leaders and philosophers that comprise the classic original; supreme arrogance or playful hyperbole? You decide). The song title is taken from its first line: ?I heard somebody say that the war ended today, but everybody knows it?s going still,? which culminates in the chorus, ?It?s simple: we don?t wanna kill.? It?s hard to argue with such logic, and I?m sure that quite a few who are exposed to this album will take the sentiment to heart. Its tasteful early 70s production and choral harmonies help a lot.
The acid pop pastiche of ?Long Haired Child? sounds like a hippiefied Doors with vintage fuzz leads and ridiculous lyrics about how important long hair is. Sweet tune, but it ain?t 1967, bros! That being said, I like it. ?Lazy Butterfly? is sweeter, with modal drones and hovering leads, but Devendra?s vocals start to grate. The fully electrified live version I saw a few weeks ago worked better.
In previous outings, this tendency towards jazz vocal exaggeration was welcome, if for no other reason that it was unusual and offered a line to the likes of Karen Dalton and Fred Neil, brilliant and influential singers from the Greenwich Village folk scene who were usually overshadowed by their more commercially successful peers. Banhart maintained an occasional brilliance and constant oddball charm on those maiden releases, but now that charm seems to have been supplanted by a much more choreographed routine. The entirety of ?Cripple Crow? reeks of self-importance. Even the good songs seem to lose something in their slack faux laid back presentation. And there is simply too much fluff! The injection of studio banter and the occasional fem voice resounding phrases like ?all right!? while clapping along is meant to suggest a playful, spontaneous production. We?re probably supposed to think of the album ?Sessions? by Fred Neil (which features Fred in discourse with his producer and players and loose ?rehearsal quality? performances) when we hear the goofy babble that precedes ?Chinese Children.? And we?re probably supposed to grin and marvel as we think, ?lucky devils, they?re havin? so much fun, they just don?t know when to quit!? Might explain why ?Cripple Crow? is at least six songs too long.
The expansive, mellow title track offers a welcome moment of introspection juxtaposed with the apparent absurdity/ underlying complexity of songs like ?Chinese Children? and ?Little Boys.? Snuggled tightly between these often laborious throwaways are haunted, short acoustic instrumentals like ?Sawkill River? or the drunken love poem of ?Queen Bee,? which get all but lost in the vapor. I really like ?I Feel Just Like a Child? though. With its driving percussion and vocals high in the mix, it?s a surefire hit among so many dying embers.
This album is sure to wrangle Banhart and his Hairy Fairies a wider audience, but it?s also bound to leave a lot of the already faithful scratching their heads in confusion, even asking ?so what?? In the end ?Cripple Crow? is basically one step forward and two steps back. Maybe people thought something similar when Bolan and Dylan plugged in. Maybe they had a right to, but in my estimation, they were wrong. Only time will tell with Mr. Banhart. This is a decent album that could?ve been great. I just hope it?s not indicative of a larger underground shift from esoteric idiosyncrasy to retro celebration. 6/10 -- Lee Jackson (27 June, 2006)