From being a fairly obsessive fan of Devendra Banhart, I’ve found myself lacking much to say about “What Will We Be” in the months since it first turned up in the office. It’s far from a bad record, but the few times I played it, it felt oddly weary, even uncharismatic, compared with its predecessors; “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon” is often identified as the jump-off point for a lot of Banhart former fans, but I still think that one stands up as a terrifically spirited album, full of life.
Maybe the understated, relatively straight vibes of “What Will We Be” represents a first cautious step for Banhart towards a ‘mature’ style that isn’t yet fully resolved. But it also comes at a time when the raggle-taggle tribe of freak-folk (dread term) artists that he lead and nurtured seem, in many cases, to have gone to ground. Doubtless there’ll be another spike in activity and interest when Joanna Newsom finally follows up “Ys”.
In the meantime, though, Newsom turns up playing a bit of piano on a nice, unshowy record by Kevin Barker on Banhart’s Gnomonsong imprint. Barker has long been an unassuming grafter in the freak-folk engine room, playing in both of those artists’ bands as well as with Vetiver, Antony And The Johnsons and Vashti Bunyan. He also put out a few fingerpicking albums under the name of Currituck Co, which were – or at least the ones I heard were – nice enough, if somewhat insubstantial.
“You & Me” is quite a lot better, though, a fairly orthodox singer-songwriter album, touched by Americana, which finds Barker hooking up with the likes of Newsom, producer Thom Monahan, Wilco’s Pat Sansone and the fine, ubiquitous drummer Otto Hauser. Out of his various sparring partners, the best reference point would be Vetiver; there’s that same calm, wise grasp of roots tradition radiated by Andy Cabic at his best. You could also draw parallels, though, with some latterday records by Wooden Wand/James Jackson Toth, even if Barker doesn’t flaunt such an obviously maverick streak.
For more pronounced eccentricity, you could do worse than try the debut Growlers album, “Are You In Or Out?”, a Californian band who’ve done some recent touring with Banhart. The Growlers specialise in a kind of sepia-tinted, battered kind of vintage pop, related to the more quirky end of the Nuggets spectrum – or some of Devendra’s own spikier ramalams. Considering “Are You In Or Out?” is ostensibly drawn from the band’s eight handmade CDRs, and that they evidently strive to present themselves as heavily flakey, it’s a surprisingly together, coherent album; a sweet and reverberant West Coast correlative to The Coral, of all things.