Devendra the dilettante | Bleader

Devendra the dilettante

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Devendra Banhart has been the face of the so-called freak-folk scene since its inception about four or five years ago. He’s forever championing forgotten singers (Linda Perhacs, Karen Dalton, Vashti Bunyan) as well as new voices (Jana Hunter, Matteah Baim, Vetiver) and acting the fool with his food-trapping beard and silly face make-up. He’s either completely fearless or completely narcissistic, and either way it's impressive. But his records have generally left me cold, and whatever he's accomplished as a songwriter has been zeroed out by his painfully self-conscious singing, super mannered with a vibrato as wide as Lake Michigan.

His new album Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (XL) is far and away his most sprawling and incoherent, but it’s also the first one I’ve actually enjoyed. He dabbled in some Latin American styles on its predecessor, Cripple Crow (2005), but his loudly professed interest in South American sounds has never been this fully realized before. “Samba Vexillographica” is a bubbly simulacrum of tropicalia, right down the to tape-slowed fade (a la Os Mutantes), which makes way for a brief (and somewhat wan) samba percussion breakdown. It’s one of three tunes sung in Spanish, and there’s also one in Portuguese, “Rosa,” which includes some singing by guitarist Rodrigo Amarante of the great Brazilian rock band Los Hermanos, who also plays on numerous other tracks. He adds some convincing musicality, but the same can’t really be said for some of the other cameos, which seem like a product of Banhart’s shameless fixation with celebrity: Spanish actor Gael Garcia Bernal sings on “Cristobal” and Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes plays charango on another song.

Banhart channels Jim Morrison on the epic “Seahorse,” delivers a cringe-inducing dose of pop doo wop on “Shabop Shalom” (where he toys with the lyrics of “Book of Love” in delvering horrific lines like “Who wrote the book of Job? / Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?”), dabbles in reggae on “The Other Woman,” feebly goes the gospel route on “Saved,” and brings out a tepid falsetto in aping the Jackson 5 on “Lover” (it’s closer to Bobby Conn than Jacko). He's just not as good as the folks he’s clearly emulating, who also include Tim Buckley and Caetano Veloso.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Perhaps because the music finally matches his calculated eccentricity, I’ve been far less annoyed by this record than its more sober, focused predecessors. But the fact remains that Banhart is primarily a savvy collector--of records, of friends, of vintage clothes--rather than a creator.

Banhart performs tonight at the Portage with Matteah Baim (link above is MySpace; this is Monica Kendrick's take) .

Today’s playlist:

Various Artists, Long Man Blues (Delmark)
Chico Feitosa, Chico Fim de Noite Apresenta Chico Feitosa (Forma/Mercury, Japan)
Florencia Ruiz, Cuerpo (VerdiGris)
Stilluppsteypa, Stories Part Five (Ritornell)
Max Neuhaus, The New York School: Nine Realizations of Cage, Feldman, Brown (Alga Marghen)

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