Devendra Banhart: What Will We Be

RIYL: Donovan, Marc Bolan, Veviter

Toiling within the ranks of the indie underground, Devendra Banhart has managed to elevate himself into the highest ranks of the so-called “freak folk” hierarchy. His last album, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, made a pitch to expand that tag, with Banhart attempting to meld his obtuse approach with the idyllic imagery of the L.A. environs that spawned such ‘60s lynchpins as Neil Young, CSN, the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, and various others that made music in those hallowed hills. Likewise, his recruitment by the majors – in this case, Warner Bros. records, home to many of those aforementioned icons – seemed to indicate a concerted effort to break through the barriers.

Indeed, while Banhart’s new label affiliation might seem a concession to commercialism, in truth, the results are every bit as eclectic…and, for that matter, every bit as eccentric…as his earlier efforts. The songs are sung in both English and Spanish, and rather than the clear, coherent melodies identified with the so-called Southern California elite, Banhart still shifts his set-ups – often radically and in the space of a single song. Consequently, “Rats” has a somewhat foreboding start before segueing abruptly into a state of kinetic jubilation. The jazzy inference of “Chin Chin & Muck Muck” morphs several times before the song hits its stride. Likewise, “Angelika” might have succeeded as a soothing serenade had it not accelerated midway through into a sizzling Latin samba.

Still, for all his abrupt turns, Banhart retains a decidedly old school stance. His melodies may seem somewhat amorphous, but his quivering vocals and loping tempos frequently recall the pixie-like warble of Donovan and Marc Bolan. A couple of tracks might bode well for future sing-alongs, specifically “16 & Valencia Roxy Music” and the gentle Spanish serenade called “Brindo.” As an album that’s magnified by ambition and grand designs, What Will We Be may well be his best yet. (Warner Bros. 2009)

Devendra Banhart MySpace page
Click to buy What Will We Be from Amazon


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