Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon
evendra Banhart is who we want him to be. Five years ago, we wanted an itinerant folkie; he gave us Nino Rojo and Rejoicing in the Hands, moved cross-country, and emphasized his Venezuelan roots. Two years ago, we wanted a leader for a freak-folk scene that may or may not have existed; Devendra orchestrated his own “A Great Day in Harlem,” started a label (Gnomonsong), and repped hard for his friends (Vetiver, Noah Georgeson). And now? Cripple Crow’s not subtle move to South American folk rock and Banhart’s increased visibility has focused our need for a character, someone to inhabit the personality void left by the musicians—Marc Bolan, Neil Young, Caetono Veloso—Devendra so brashly apes. And so Devendra moved to Topanga Canyon, posed for the magazine covers, and recorded Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon.
Smokey, more than any other album in Devendra’s catalog, asks listeners to buy into his hippie-cum-man child persona wholesale. It becomes essential that you do, too, because the peripherals aren’t so hot. It’d be easy to assume that Devendra is in on his own jokes—the cliché-ridden title, the abhorrent Jewish romance “Shabop Shalom,” Chris Robinson (Black Crowes) guesting on an instrument made out of an armadillo shell—but it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt (at a recent tour stop he continually referred to his band as Spiritual Bonerz, “with a silent ‘z’”). Jokingly or not, Smokey plays classic rock dress-up, trying on all manner of ill-fitting getups and moving Devendra ever further from his strengths as a slippery-tongued oddity.
Smokey’s talking piece is undoubtedly “Seahorse,” an eight-minute statement song that showcases the contributions of guitarist Georgeson, backup singer/guiarist Andy Cabic (Vetiver), and the rest of Banhart’s permanent touring band. First slowing Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” piano figure and then thinning any number of Sabbath riffs, “Seahorse” is a lazy, arrogant toss, short on both hooks and shuffling feet. Over this tired mélange Banhart spouts entire messes of his nonsense—“I wanna be a little seahorse” and later, “I’m scared of ever being born again”—and comes off like a blindfolded kid trying to whack the poetry out of a piñata.
Banhart’s band fares better, turning songs that could’ve been Nino Rojo castoffs into densely managed balladry. “So Long Old Bean” benefits from Andy Cabic’s high harmonies, and “Bad Girl”’s ghostly “Waaah waaah”’s set the stage for a rousing coda that finds Banhart shredding the recesses of his vocal chords. Even the band cuts both ways, though: their increased care turns two-minutes into four and five (see “The Other Woman” or “Rosa”), such that Smokey suffers from many extremely well executed failures.
Banhart’s physicality has always been an overlooked aspect of his personality: his obsession with hair and childhood play here, as does his surprisingly spirited and gyrating stage presence. Any successes Smokey does manage are a result of Banhart rescuing his pipes from warble-hell and throwing them into bristling, horny bangers. “Tonada Yanomaminista” is a stuttering dervish of a rock song, Smokey’s best, and “Lover” kills as surprisingly funky party-pop, if you can ignore the lyrics. It is particularly frustrating that three of Smokey’s most memorable arrangements—“Lover,” the swooning sock-hop “Shabop Shalom,” and the gospel-flavored “Saved”—are rendered meaningless by Banhart’s lyrics, which seemingly calculate the shortest vector to each trope.
It was telling that at his recent Chicago show, Devendra shyly introduced Smokey’s quaintest track, the closing “My Dearest Friend,” and found the song’s soft, opening line, “I’m going to die of loneliness” met with a drunken “No you’re not!” Drunk chick was right: alienation is ridiculously hard to feign with your best buds on guitar and in a theater of adoring fans. Banhart’s efforts to expand himself have left him woefully unable to play to his strengths in the rare occasions he bothers with them. It would be easy to close with a cliché—be careful what you wish for—but whether Banhart has been reacting to his fans or not, he should start. Maybe they can shout him back to relevancy; fucking nobody asked for Smokey.