Devendra Banhart Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon

[XL; 2007]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles:  freak-rock
Others: Vetiver, Brain Taint, Vashti Bunyan

Among my peers, I hear a lot of casual derision thrown Devendra Banhart's way. Admittedly, even I felt some pangs of disappointment upon hearing Rejoicing in the Hands. Oh Me Oh My, the debut that preceded it, had been so haunting and thrilling, promising something that didn't really at all resemble the polished, bright material that followed. He had been cast by the press as a kind of vanguard of that whole "freak-folk" thing, and when he tamed things up, he was taken by some to be a fraud; although, really, I'd never heard him claim to be anything.

Given the complacency of his sound at that point, I don't think anybody could have seen 2005's Cripple Crow coming. Rich stoner jams like "Long Haired Child" and "I Feel Just Like a Child," fully backed with funky basslines, a drum kit, and fiery electric guitar segments, were jarring departures. These were "rock" songs, and while they were derivative and even a bit tedious (further alienating the reactionaries), they indicated a latent fluency in a much broader stylistic vocabulary and inspired a curiosity that hadn't been felt since Oh Me Oh My.

Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon expands further on these explorations, making even the most boisterous moments on Cripple Crow appear hushed and meek. This first becomes seriously evident with "Sea Horse." At over eight minutes in length, it's the longest track of any proper Banhart release by a full two minutes. Arriving in three stages, it begins familiarly with his voice and two guitars lazily plucking along, before plunging into a jazzy, syncopated piano/flute intermission, and finally exploding with a heavy electric guitar solo that recalls the psychedelia of Comets on Fire.

Later, Banhart indulges his affinity for '50s R&B with "Shabop Shalom," the only doo-wop song I've heard with the phrase "Get bent" -- not to mention a tongue-in-cheek Jewish love tale, replete with cringe-inducing plays on words ("You wanna know/ Who wrote the Book of Job") and one of those earnest spoken-word pleas: "Honey, when it comes to love, there's a fire in the deep end of my heart, givin' me the heebie-jeebies." Then there's "Saved," a full-on gospel number, featuring church organ and a choir; "Lover," borrowing from late-'60s soul with a Jackson 5-inspired bassline and a hand-clap-punctuated breakdown; and "Carmensita," a raucous Latin-infused piece that is possibly the most confident track on here.

Even the quieter moments of the album (of which there are plenty) possess something previously just hinted at. Tracks like "Bad Girl," "Seaside," and "Freely" are hazy, sun-dappled, and frequently gorgeous. The consistently laudable performances and production of Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon make for something that appears effortless and remains engaging throughout its 70-plus-minute runtime. With close to two dozen musicians at work, including vocals by Vashti Bunyan and Matteah Baim, the record is huge. It's ambitious without being self-indulgent, and more often than not, its influences are not so cleanly demarcated.

Sure, this isn't musical innovation -- but it is personal innovation. Banhart doesn't have any pretensions about himself. He loves recording music, and the joy it gives him is audible, even palpable, in all his releases. In the time I've spent with Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, my evaluation has fluctuated drastically, but ultimately there was no getting around the fact that, simply put, I really like these songs.

1. Cristobal
2. So Long Old Bean
3. Samba Vexillographica
4. Seahorse
5. Bad Girl
6. Seaside
7. Shabop Shalom
8. Tonada Yanomaminista
9. Rosa
10. Saved
11. Lover
12. Carmencita
13. The Other Woman
14. Freely
15. I Remember
16. My Dearest Friend

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