The Charles C. Leary (2002)
Oh Me Oh My (Young God, 2002)
Rejoicing in the Hands (Young God, 2004)
Niñ Rojo (Young God, 2004)
Cripple Crow (XL, 2005)
Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (XL, 2007)
What Will We Be (Warner Bros., 2009)
Commonly associated with the "freak folk" scene of the 2000s, Devendra Banhart is a mystic for the post-boomer generation who was all hopped up on pot smoke and sunshine and freedom, unwilling to let current events harsh his mellow. The San Francisco-based singer-songwriter's androgynous vibrato sounds like a mix between Billie Holiday and Marc Bolan. His longhaired, shirtless, bearded style is pure Sixties Haight-Ashbury. And his lyrics, inspired observations like "All my thoughts are hairs on a wild, wild boar". . . well, maybe they're just plain timeless?
Coming of age musically in 2002 with The Charles C. Leary and Oh Me Oh My, two albums with similarly spare acoustics and semi-interchangeable tracklists, Banhart offered a fantasy of total escape from the anxieties of the post-millennial world — and in his spaciest flights of fancy, from the world itself. On "Cosmos and Damien" and "Cosmos and Demos," he shouted out the universe as if he was hovering above it in lotus position, plucking on his guitar and free-associating lyrics about an "umber-armed albino" and a "paper-colored cat." Sounding slightly off-his-meds was his greatest party trick, and musically, he channeled both outsider-artist oddness and the delicate beauty of a melody craftsman like Nick Drake. The warbling waltz "Legless Love," for instance, sounded like a scary nursery rhyme. Allowing field-recording noise like gunshots and eerie music-box whirrings to drift into the songs, Banhart added a certain dark mystery to his otherwise wide-eyed debuts.
While so many other folk artists wrestled with self-serious questions of authenticity, Banhart was first and foremost a prankster, and his wacky sense of humor enriched his next double-hitter, 2004's Rejoicing in the Hands and Niñ Rojo. Both albums were laid down during the same session, in the living room of veteran recording engineer Lynn Bridges, and both were loaded up Banhart once called "psychedelic jokes" — absurd stuff that made you laugh even when it didn't have a punchline. On "At the Hop," he joked that his lady should put him in her dreams — especially the wet ones. "This Beard is for Siobhan" found him teasing that "because my teeth don't bite / I can take 'em out dancin'." He couldn't even get through a line about Peter Pan without bursting into giggles. Totally unselfconscious, he was charmingly childlike. And with a much warmer production style that fleshed out his spooky strumming with pianos, cellos, and handclaps, he sounded far less creepy. This was Banhart in prime form: equally funny-ha-ha and funny-weird.
By the mid-2000s, Banhart's eccentricities had earned him the dubious title King of Freak Folk, putting him at the forefront of a California movement known for its largely acoustic music, heightened sense of whimsy, and Summer of Love grooming habits (trips to the barber were not popular). Though Banhart would later quibble with the genre's name, he was clearly the most recognizable face among a group of flower children that included harpist Joanna Newsom and hippie-rockers Vetiver. And in 2005, his album Cripple Crow became the defining sound of that trend. Riffing on the rootsy folk of Sixties greats like the Incredible String Band, he rambled through LSD-fuelled monologues and a back-to-nature allegories about mating with wolves and dancing under a full moon. But for all its counter-cultural leanings, this was Banhart's most accessible album to date — a jam session as blissfully stoned as anything by The Band. Winking at his sudden commercial appeal, he even threw in a song about the Beatles.
Soon enough, Banhart was acting like a real rock star, making out with Lindsey Lohan and Natalie Portman, blowing his allowance on massive amounts of lapis lazuli, rose quartz and other crystals, and holing up in Topanga Canyon to record with an entourage of celebrity guests, including the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson and the actor Gael Garcia Bernal. Luckily, he sounded like a real rock star, too. 2007's Smokey Runs Down Thunder Canyon featured an honest-to-goodness guitar blow-out with "Seahorse," an eight-minute track that transitioned from quiet lullaby to jazzy dalliances with organs and flutes to an explosive Neil Young and Crazy Horse-style finale. Elsewhere, he played the international jetsetter, seducing his fans in Portuguese (on the piano ballad "Rose"), Spanish (on the Brazillian pop ditty "Samba Vexillographica"), and Yiddish (on the Fifties goof "Shabop Shalom"). And yet, with naturalistic instrumentation warming up these crisply-recorded tracks, he still sounded like the same bohemian vagabond he'd always been — except now, he was clearly traveling (if only to the far reaches of his imagination) on the record company's dime.
Banhart's major-label debut 2009's What Will We Be did little to reign in whatever wild beast was rooting around for turnips in his skull. And thank goodness for that, because from the glam-rock glitz of "16th and Valencia (Roxy Music)" to the heavy black-light headtrip of "Rats," it was both the most creatively ambitious and most satisfyingly consistent album he'd ever made. Every song sounded like a small moment of rapture: the Charlie Brown jazz of "Chin Chin & Muck Muck," the Cat Stephens-like playfulness of "Angelika," even the silly reggae vamp, appropriately called "Foolin,'" was imbued with a newfound professionalism. Somewhere between the Peter Pan jokes of his early work and the straight-faced sophistication here, he'd grown up. Freak folk's golden boy had finally become a man-child.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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