Devendra Banhart

Niño Rojo

(Young God/XL; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 22 September 2004

Devendra Banhart self-describes Niño Rojo, his newest record for Young God records and his second full length release of all new material this year, as the son of Rejoicing in the Hands--the "RED SUN" that is "not observing but participating" and "Exuberant and foolish [as] he begins his journey ONWARD!" Granted, this is hippie-talk that veers harshly toward Tori Amos-level artistic narcissism, but Banhart isn't just one to off-handedly spurt out slogans like your average bong-jockey. Having already released a terrific follow-up to 2001's Oh Me Oh My with Hands, proving himself one of the foremost talents of the ever-growing neo-psych-folk movement, and more than capable of backing up his, for lack of a better word, odd concepts with equally atypical music.

Niño is a companion disc to Rejoicing in the Hands--the second half of a joint release. There isn't a markedly different approach to either, though since both were recorded at once we shouldn't really be expecting it in the first place. Instead, Banhart has kept behind songs with an increased sense of inhibition and humour, an album that doesn't wander very far but is more welcome to the new than its supposed mother; as such, it may not be as mature, but manages to reach greater, more varied heights as a result.

First single "Little Yellow Spider" is about as child-like and unabashedly quirky as Banhart gets, but it isn't alone in its playfulness as even a glance at song titles like "HorseheadedfleshWizard" (which actually turns out to be one of the record's most somber and serious moments) can let on. Even with the lighter moments that sporadically surface, however, there is always an anchor to keep it from going too far; "Spider" in particular takes odd lyrical turns into albino monkeys and surrealistic pig-man love-children--coming off as much saturday morning cartoon as raunchy late-night cable. Lyrically, the record is a bit of a let-down at times compared to Rejoicing's more stern tone, especially during its more ridiculously non-sequitur moments, though the overall feel that Banhart edited himself very little in what came out during the song's writing adds to the unique appeal of Niño, and does at least give some credence to his stoned ramblings about it being the child of the two records.

Banhart also gets "poppier" (I use this term very loosely) on Niño than anything we've heard from him before, save perhaps "This Beard is for Siobahn." "We All Know" and "At the Hop" (co-written by Vetiver frontman Andy Cabic) tone down his usual frenetic finger picking with comparatively straight-forward three-chord gems. "Be Kind," "Noah" and, to a much lesser extent "Water May Walk," "An Island" and "Owl Eyes" all add fuller instrumentation to this more accessible front, though "Noah's" repetition, like the touching Spanish pleas of "Ay Mama," can be distracting. "Water May Walk" is even more repetitious, again constantly returning from its brief chorus to a beautifully understated theme---its chorus melody, albeit brief, being one of the record's best. "An Island," is one of the more immediate cuts, and sounds like it could've been co-written by the Decemberists' Colin Meloy. "Owl Eyes" adds layers of strings and background vocals to give its lyricless tag some weight and the results are definitely more successful than "Noah."

Though we get a few more of these slight detours in the last half, like the harmoniously haunting "Electric Heart" or the brief "The Good Red Road," most of the record does still follow in its "mother's" footsteps. "Wake Up, Little Sparrow," a gorgeous Ella Jenkins cover, opens Niño with a delicate overture, encapsulating both the timeless quality of Banhart's sound and the innocence being portrayed on this record specifically. "A Ribbon" leaked sometime before Rejoicing as an untitled cut and is untouched here; the guitar work is exceptional and his vocals ethereally rising with each brief "chorus."

It's hard to not fall into the predictable "he should've just cut the two records down into a single release" criticism, and while issues of editing do make for some interesting conjecture, Banhart's two-disc, thirty-six track sophomore effort has enabled him to purge himself of a great deal of beautiful music for us to sift through--certainly worth the effort to save the exclusion of half of the material. The two records may be separated temporarily by minor personality traits alone, but it's hard to argue that both constitute one incredibly promising sophomore effort from Banhart, even if his ambition is already getting the better of him. Hell, most artists wait five-six years before attempting their own White Album, and even Lennon drew the line at pig-fucking.