n indie-rock circles, and they do exist, Devendra Banhart is “a find.” Among these circles, rife with exurbanite goldilocked collegians, a flitting whiff of the esoteric is all it takes. They ache for a blip in their thrift-store cardigan monotony, a split-second swerve off the pasty-dudes-with-guitars. Enter “New Weird America.” (Not the last of terrifying buzzwords.) Much of it, to its credit, is too weird for John and Jane Indie. The cringeworthy names of its aliases/cousins/subspecies, “psych-folk” or “free-“ and “freakfolk” or “nu-“ and “nouveaux folk,” say little beyond its appropriated hippie Easternness, its spaciousness, its whimsy, and, well, its newness.
Cripple Crow casually disavows all the hyperventilating about “New Weird America.” On his fourth full-length, Banhart has carried on his exodus from his lonely singer-songwriter origins to arrive on stage as an echt frontman, newly confident, running the show. It brings his travel to the mainstream to conclusion, from the hissing answering-machine lo-fi to Michael Gira’s judiciously overdubbed demos to today’s gleaming studio artifact. The crude solitude of Oh Me Oh My… is long gone, with Banhart layering his vocals, more elaborately arranging his songs, and enlisting “The Hairy Fairies,” a constellation of musician friends, to back him.
The old format’s trashed: the scraped-down sparseness, the long dips into his muddy stream of consciousness, the shaggy-dog absurdism. Unmediated Devendra is now newly mediated. The old coherence has fallen to the wayside, clearing the path for a cluster of styles. Gone is any splinter of freak-folk purism. Influences crowd Cripple Crow, with the usual suspects appearing and disappearing—Tiny Tim, Donovan, Marc Bolan, Nick Drake. But it’s the collage of styles that distinguishes this album: Cuban and Indian flourishes, Eisenhower-era doo-wop, the smoky Stax groove, bucolic British trad-folk, the eccentricities of American folk, of both the Dust Bowl troubadours and the Vietnam flower-children.
Opening with the delicate “Now That I Know,” the album begins by harking back to Nick Drake—or forth to Vetiver? Here bluesy confessions recline across a mat of deft fingerpicking and a humble cello that shadows Banhart’s humming. Along with “Sawkill River” and “Dragonflys,” it revives the guitar-and-voice austerity of his past work.
“Santa Maria de Feira,” the breathy first of several Spanish-language ballads follows, swirling flutes and shakers around choruses of ohhh’s. Banhart croons in his Latin mother tongue more frequently than before, lining his album with son and flamenco accents. Here the moon makes a couple cameos: “Quedate Luna” ringing Cuban, while “Luna de Margarita,” finds Banhart covering Simon Diaz, in a ghostly blend of plaintive strings and guitar. Dashes of music outside America give Cripple Crow an international flavor absent in past outings, with nods to the east and the south. Like a Calcutta trio covering Tyrannosaurus Rex, “Lazy Butterfly” sets Banhart’s swaggering warble alongside Andy Cabic’s backing vocals, their fitful harmonies gliding over sitar and tabla.
A vacation from the outré surrealism of his earlier work, Cripple Crow is more grounded. Foreign policy collides with Banhart’s fixation on youth; tension between war’s complexities and childhood’s simplicities bubbles up across the album. That early Marc Bolan impression leaks into “I Feel Just Like a Child, ” where Banhart relays, in lively melodies over a proto-rock stomp, his childlike need for family and innocence unsuited to geopolitics, pleading for someone to “please explain the war.” Earlier, Banhart takes a stab, on “Heard Somebody Say,” at a Lennonesque protest song. Transparently denouncing the Iraq War, he invokes both White House wartime smokescreens (“but everybody knows it’s going still”) and pacifist logic (“it’s simple / We don’t want to kill”). Perhaps heavy-handed, perhaps naïve, his anger is still strikingly conveyed through simple melodies and tender harmonies, mingling a tinkling piano, Feathers’ pillowy backing choruses, flutes, drums, and Banhart’s trusty acoustic. Another anti-war foray, the title track boasts nearly the same instrumentation as “Heard Somebody Say,” combining hand drums and a timid flute, leaving out the piano. The message, though, is different, a revamped Thoreauvian plea for civil disobedience over bloodshed.
Slivers of the old weirdness remain. A case for winter-friendly hairdos, “Long Haired Child” breaks schizo: electrified Doors-style garage-soul that snaps late in the song, only to reemerge as a doo-wop number. The notorious tongue-in-cheek ode to pederasty, “Little Boys,” has a split personality, too, starting off as a sort of Stax torch song before switching gears mid-song, again into doo-wop, cribbing the bass line from Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him.”
Banhart’s stylistic scattershot spares no genre, no topic. Waxing autobiographical, if obliquely, on “Some People Ride the Wave,” Banhart’s itinerancies are sculpted into a dixieland cabaret sing-a-long. Elsewhere he allows his reedy tenor to quaver in reverence. “The Beatles” starts in English, accounting for the living half of the Fab Four, that “Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are the only Beatles in the world,” before devolving into a cartoonish Spanish barking. Banhart channels Neil Young on “Korean Dogwood,” a love story reviving his dreamy trademark anti-narratives.
Cripple Crow concludes with a simple, elegiac piano number. It’s a counterpoint to the ambition hinted at by his cover art: a double invocation of the iconography of Sgt. Pepper, the vaunted apotheosis of psychedelia, and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, a masterwork of ‘60s folk whimsy. This isn’t irony—he’s no snickering poseur; this is genuflecting homage, to musicians past and present, foreign and domestic, strange and familiar. Cripple Crow is about bringing different peoples and different times together through music, finally an homage to community itself.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: SEPTEMBER 19 – SEPTEMBER 25, 2005
Reviewed by: Roque Strew
Reviewed on: 2005-09-19
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