In the early days of Devendra Banhart's career, his ghostly voice singing down the phone and captured on four track was more than enough to lend the eerie mysticism required for his nonsensical material (of course, it didn't hurt that his voice was bewitching no matter the lyrical content). As he gradually acquired confederates and the ability to record in studios, the clear problem was going to be retaining that same ghostly personality that made his early recordings so special. Decamped to a woodsy compound nestled in ...
In the early days of Devendra Banhart's career, his ghostly voice singing down the phone and captured on four track was more than enough to lend the eerie mysticism required for his nonsensical material (of course, it didn't hurt that his voice was bewitching no matter the lyrical content). As he gradually acquired confederates and the ability to record in studios, the clear problem was going to be retaining that same ghostly personality that made his early recordings so special. Decamped to a woodsy compound nestled in Topanga Canyon, and an enterprising home studio built within, manned by early champion Noah Georgeson, Banhart has weathered the storm of accessibility very well. Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is many things -- perhaps too many things, but its successes outnumber its failures, and it essentially solves the problems inherent in confining a free-form singer to time signatures and arrangements and rhythms imposed by outsiders. It's also a success in that it finds him more comfortable within those confines than 2005's Cripple Crow, his first full-band record. Of the many things Smokey Rolls is, first of all it's his White Album, as he marshals his many influences into a mural of closely drawn portraits, whether it's Victor Jara on the opener, "Cristobal," Gilberto Gil on the deep polyrhythms of "Samba Vexillographica," Jewish wedding music and Borscht Belt comedy in equal measure on "Shabop Shalom," or, in the oddest combination, Dave Brubeck and Grand Funk (separately, not together) on the eight-minute "Sea Horse" (with backing vocals from another influence, the winsome Vashti Bunyan). The album is also his Blue -- Joni Mitchell's Blue, that is -- with several songs dedicated to the destruction of a relationship, with poignant lyrics ("Mama, I ain't waiting but I'm still holdin on"). As an aside, given the cast of "bearded bums" present, Smokey Rolls is also his Absolutely Free and, given his representation by Neil Young manager Elliot Roberts, it must be his After the Gold Rush. Certainly, his surreal life continues to yield more material -- consider the inspiration of becoming lost with friends in the Orinoco basin until a stork lands and immediately leads them far into the jungle to a tribe of yopo-snorters ("Tonada Yanomaminista"). And, amid the trippy songs and confessional singer/songwriter material, there's yet more evidence of Banhart's continuing musical idiosyncrasies: "Saved," which comes complete with a gospel choir, has the production mark of the late '70s (but not in a good way), while "Lover" is a surprisingly funky fusion of soul and pop, like Jackson 5 with a backing group of Archie Bell & the Drells plus the Manson Family on vocals. Continually beguiling and fascinating, even as he leaves his four-track days farther behind, it's clear that Devendra Banhart has much more ground to plow. ~ John Bush, Rovi
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