Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Will Devendra Banhart be allowed to go mainstream?

As his latest album shows, the singer/songwriter wants to break free from the lo-fi freak-folk underground. Will his public let him?

I've been listening to Devendra Banhart's new album Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, an enjoyable listen and yet it had left a lot of reviewers in a quandary. The album has a cinematic musical scope but it seems to be that its author is to be forever associated with his media tag of freak folkster - all beards, beads and bellbottoms, a tag that easily forgets Banhart's talent.

And however, as of late, his life has been more Hollywood than Haight Ashbury; being interviewed by Lindsay Lohan, hanging out with Beck, opening up Karl Lagerfeld's fashion shows, singing with Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal and switching his management to Neil Young's main man, Elliott Roberts. Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon moves his mythology on further. It was recorded in Topanga Canyon, land of Woody Guthrie, Neil Young and Charles Manson; home to canyon rock and the cocaine cowboy.

An inveterate self-mythologiser, Devendra Banhart has a back-story that would make Dylan proud. Born in Texas, he was given the name Devendra by an Indian Guru mystic, went to live with his mother in Venezuela, was briefly brought up in the Divine Light Mission cult and ended up in San Francisco. The release of his first two albums, The Black Babies and Oh Me Oh My ... on Michael Gira's Young Gods label gave him underground buzz but it was the near-simultaneous release of Nino Rojo and Rejoicing in the Hands that significantly raised his profile. Those albums referenced the child-like nursery rhymes of Syd Barrett, the otherworldly voice of hippie-era Marc Bolan, and the tropicalia rhythms of Caetano Veloso; he was also responsible for bringing folk legend Vashti Bunyan back to life. And that same year he compiled the zeitgeist-capturing Golden Apples of the Sun, which featured Joanna Newsom and Antony and the Johnsons and made him, wittingly or unwittingly, the figurehead of the so-called freak folk movement.

His next release, Cripple Crow, was the first metamorphosis from hippie child to manchild. Boasting 22 songs, it was more akin to the White Album than previous efforts and contained varying influences of reggae, tropicalia, acid-rock and yes, folk-rock. By using Bearsville Studio - owned by the Band - and the recorded home to some of Banhart's heroes, Karen Dalton and Bobby Charles, it demonstrated that Banhart wanted to make his way out of the four-track lo-fi folk ghetto and make a statement. The results polarised people.

The same polarisation seems to have happened with Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. The influences are expansive: samba, Os Mutantes, the Doors, psychedelic soul, CSNY and reggae. Its eclectic and wilfully obtuse vibe is very reminiscent of the infamous canyon rock superstar David Crosby's work and demonstrates Banhart's willingness to grow from the underground to the city light of the mainstream. Will everyone allow him to do it? Or will Banhart's epitaph be, in the words of Morrissey: "I thought that if you had/An acoustic guitar/Then it meant that you were/A Protest Singer/Oh, I can smile about it now/But at the time it was terrible." Time will tell but I'm eager for the next act already
Source: Gaurdian Unlimited

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