Devendra Banhart

Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon

(XL; 2007)

By Traviss Cassidy | 14 December 2007

It’s pretty hard to mistake Devendra Banhart’s first three records (Oh Me Oh My… [2002], Rejoicing in the Hands [2004], Niño Rojo [2004]) for the work of anyone else. I mean, the comparisons to British folk artists from the ‘60s and ‘70s (particularly Vashti Bunyan) were tenuous at best -- especially when you try to parse the sources of that witch-like warble -- and Banhart has never had a clear ancestor in folk, never a Nick Drake to our José Gonzalez. In his pre-recording days of sneaking into concert venues in San Francisco and playing for money on street corners to support his homeless-by-choice lifestyle, Banhart was carving out a singular identity within a relatively self-contained world. Judging from the primitive picking on Oh Me Oh My…, I doubt he ever paid for guitar lessons and he definitely never shelled out for singing lessons (thank God). That meant his music, while a bit rough around the edges, was at least totally and unmistakably his own.

Which is why I got worried as hell when Cripple Crow (2005) came lumbering along with its overflowing list of collaborative cohorts. It’s true that both Rejoicing and Niño Rojo were augmented by guest performances, a few friends taken under his wing and shown how things are done. But Cripple Crow was the first time he started to absorb the influences of his peers and stray from his original, self-designed sound. Now Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon charts Banhart’s further estrangement from his core aesthetic and proves, with its missteps as much as its highpoints, that Banhart is best when he keeps things simple and intimate.

The majority of Smokey squanders Banhart’s songwriting skills by indulging half-hearted genre exercises and flat-out mimicry. “Samba Vexillographica” apes post-Tropicália Caetano Veloso but lacks all of the aging Brazilian’s gorgeous sorrow, substituting in limp, tune-less, and eagerly “exotic” percussion and inane chants. “Seahorse” exemplifies all the despicable qualities of a hippy jam: the “epic” three-part structure, pointless guitar noodling, cliché lyrics (“I’m high and I’m happy and I’m free”). The biggest offender, the abysmal “Lover,” wallows in the kind of cheap T. Rex-style glam-rock posturing that will have Marc Bolan rolling in his shine-capped grave.

The few moments on Smokey that play to Banhart’s strength (the simple folk song) produce results nearly on par with his best work. Opener “Cristobal” couples delicate guitar plucking with equally fragile Spanish verses draped in natural imagery and hinting at a vague, shrouded sadness. “Rosa” recalls the somber delicacy of Rejoicing’s “Autumn’s Child” with its enveloping piano chords and half-whispered vocals, though at over five minutes it overstays its welcome. Conversely, “My Dearest Friend” frustrates on account of its brevity; the two-and-a-half-minute song devotes its first minute to swelling strings, leaving a scant rest to some of Smokey’s best verses, sung in unison with the grandmotherly Vashti Bunyan: “My dearest friend / You’ll soon begin / To love again.” Sure, Banhart executes the truncated verse spectacularly, but he doesn’t give his listeners enough time to love him. Smokey’s great songs, or rather great moments embedded within good songs, make the album all the more frustrating: it’s clear that Banhart still has plenty of disarmingly beautiful folk songs tucked underneath his trousers; so why did he spend so much time dallying in ill-suited genres and bland imitations? At this point, Banhart needs to wise up and install a quality filter on his creativity valve--and do so before his solipsistic energies dry up completely.