Devendra Banhart’s “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon”

The first time I heard Devendra Banhart, I remember thinking that there was something ineffably creepy about him. I loved "Oh Me Oh My. . .", but it felt an eerie, almost malign record, and the impression was compounded at his first London show, supporting Michael Gira. Banhart didn't seem dangerous, exactly, but his otherness was somehow disturbing, as well as compelling.

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The first time I heard Devendra Banhart, I remember thinking that there was something ineffably creepy about him. I loved “Oh Me Oh My. . .”, but it felt an eerie, almost malign record, and the impression was compounded at his first London show, supporting Michael Gira. Banhart didn’t seem dangerous, exactly, but his otherness was somehow disturbing, as well as compelling.



It’s funny thinking back, because in the interim Banhart seems to have become the indie world’s pet hippy, a benign prankster who radiates love for music, spiders, humanity, his beard, and the vast array of fine artists he has nurtured, played with and championed over the past five years. I can’t think of many other musicians in that time who have informed my taste so much, whose proselytizing have turned me on to so much great music.

There’s a danger, though, that maybe people don’t take Banhart seriously enough now. That his open-hearted cheerleading and kindergarten flights of fantasy leave him looking substantially more lightweight than he really is.

Hopefully, “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon” should remedy that. It’s a very long record, and there’s still a fair bit of mucking about on it. But at heart, this is a beautifully-realised piece of work: an album recorded in LA’s Topanga Canyon that taps into the local vibes (the airy, dislocated majesty of David Crosby‘s “If I Could Only Remember My Name” is a key text here) and Banhart’s South American heritage (on the likes of “Samba Vexillographica”, he emerges as a potent heir to Caetano Veloso) to describe the end of a love affair.

“Smokey Rolls” isn’t really an acid-folk album: it’s much grander and more complicated than that, as the “Seahorse” track I linked to yesterday proves. At its best, there’s a stately, stoned grace to it all, with woody acoustics and chamber strings weaving around Banhart’s frank confessions of romantic dislocation. In this vein, “Bad Girl”, “I Remember”, “My Dearest Friend” and “Freely” are some of the best songs Banhart has ever written.

Elsewhere, his attempts to stretch out are pretty successful – even the rabbinical doo-wop number, “Shabop Shalom”. Only a run of stylistic flip-flops – gospel (“Saved”), Jackson 5 pop (“Lover”), salsa (“Carmensita”), reggae (“The Other Woman”) – though individually brilliant, feel a bit like exercises in pastiche when they’re bunched together.

But this is a minor gripe, really, about such an absorbing record. It reveals that Devendra Banhart is a good enough songwriter to transcend the eccentricities which have, thus far into his career, been most prominent. And now he’s claimed, in the current issue of Uncut, that he’s not really a hippy, then you don’t even have to be put off by that. . .

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