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Devendra Banhart's departure from arcane folk

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Devendra Banhart
Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon
Release Date: 09/25/07
XL Recordings

A lot of people hate Devendra Banhart. He's definitely one of the most polarizing artists that I listen to. I've explored innumerable avenues of elucidating this matter and nothing has come close to sating me. Within the indie community there are splintering factions of naysayers who say, "That's where I draw the line!" The line, of course, divides the obscure from the conventional means of expression. Devendra definitely fit snugly in the former until now.

Whether you think he's a bumbling hippy, who let his own freak folk gimmick get to his head, or a distinctive innovator devising masterful records, one thing is certain: Devendra Banhart, who plays at the Orpheum on 10/13, is deliberately trying to make his obscure music more accessible to the masses. He's done so on his latest XL released effort by simply making his vocals and his overall tone more digestible. Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is a mesmerizing collision of free jazz, 70's rock and roll, Brazilian folk, sock hop, and even motown elements. Banhart's prior efforts comprised a tremendously divisive style of singing yet in certain fringe communities he has been regarded as the herald of the freak folk (or to be politically correct Naturalismo) movement.

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The album commences with the acoustic Spanish ballad "Cristobal", which features Gael García Bernal. From "Quetate Luna" on his 2005 release Cripple Crow to "Todos Los Dolores" on his 2004 release Rejoicing In The Hands, Banhart has always incorporated his multilingual abilities. On Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, we see songs built upon Spanish, Portuguese, and at times a combination of the two. "Cristobal" tends to solidify the haters' bones of contention because of the creepy, heavily reverberated crooning. Hell, it even bothers me he had to pull the celebrity guest appearance card, but the girls won't be complaining. Though if you don't dig farther, you won't reach the ingenious gems.

Devendra Banhart - "Seahorse"

The eight minute long masterpiece "Seahorse" begins deceivingly with Devendra quivering: "I'm high and I'm happy and I'm free". I believe that makes three references to being high already and I haven't even made it a fourth of the way through the album yet. At the 2:00 mark everything immediately bursts into a massive '70s redux. With powerful piano parts, climbing bass lines, brushed snare hits, and flute accompaniment, "Seahorse" recalls the progressive rock stylings of Jethro Tull. Near the 5:00 mark, we get thrown for another loop when a soloing guitar plunges into an interlude thrusted by Banhart's Jefferson Airplane-like wailings. The epic song, which draws from all sorts of 70's psychedelia, features freak folk confidant Vashti Bunyan and is indubitably the most remarkable song on Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon.

Cue the gospel! "Saved" is an attention-grabbing, sardonic Motown throwback. I disagree with others on the matter of length. The five minute organ-propelled ballad would not effectively convey the irreverent message without the backing of a gratuitous church-like chorale. The gospel moments are punctuated by ardent rock and roll, providing for a fiery ambience.

Devendra tends to make the most queer combination of elements work together. I mean come on, "Shabop Shalom"? Sure the song features Nick Valensi of the Strokes, but I'd never gloss over that title thinking, "Hey, I might enjoy this." Despite the hilarious, almost embarrassing spoken word moments, we get an imaginative sock hop throwback dominated by barbershop harmonies and jocular lyrics. No other artist could pull off something this bizarre and actually make it enjoyable.

As I watched him premiere songs from Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon at the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle, it struck me that Devendra has finally taken his musical aspirations to a new level. Standout tracks like "Carmensita" embodied this newly ripened state. With a comprehensive backing group of guitars, keys, bongos, and an overabundance of layered harmonies, I came to the realization that he is switching gears between indistinguishable, obscure bumbling to lucid, debonair warbling. Now, that may sound like a trivial progression. However, it should be noted because I believe this small distinction can, and will, bridge the gap between the freak folk (or Naturalismo) community and the mainstream masses.

Despite the haze, which settles upon most of his albums, Devendra is compos menti throughout the duration of the sixteen song journey. Banhart's initially quixotic vision has evolved beautifully into a sophisticated, somewhat conventional focus. He is much more in control of his faculties this time through.