Devendra Banhart What Will We Be

[Reprise; 2009]

Styles: folk, freak
Others: Vetiver, Larkin Grimm, Michael Gira

Whatever happened to “freak folk”? For a minute, it seemed like the next faction under the indie rock umbrella poised for mass popularity. One can’t deny Devendra Banhart’s role in its supernova flash of critical acclaim and subsequent collapse. That bearded wonder — he’s since shaved! — had quite a flash of importance as well. From 2004-2005, he released three wonderful collections of hazy folk, combining the pretentious grandeur of psychedelia with an understated, traditional aesthetic. It was nothing new, but it was executed well enough to land Banhart a date with Natalie Portman and achieve some kind of widespread notoriety. Then 2007’s Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon happened. It was an album so awful it derailed folk’s freakiness before it really even gathered a great deal of steam. What Will We Be is a better, more realized album, but it’s still a dud, filled with mediocre, half-composed songs and tediously unfocused songwriting.

The opening song, “Can’t Help,” might be the best moment here. At just two and a half minutes, there’s not enough time for Banhart to fuck it up. The song seems to drift away in its own serenity, with a banjo and start-stop drumming surrounding Banhart’s whispered singing: “You can’t help but smiling/ What fun not to know why!”

But from there, Banhart and company merely become disorganized — acting like stylistic chameleon’s, changing melodies, structures, even entire genres at the drop of a hat, sometimes right in the middle of a song.

“Angelika”’s Simon & Garfunkel breezy folk works for a minute, but by the second verse, it starts to sound like “Under the Sea” — and let’s not even talk about the abrupt jazzy coda with Banhart singing in Spanish. It doesn’t fit the song and feels like a kind of musical dick-waving: “Hey, I can sing in Spanish too!” At this point, it’s no mystery that Banhart grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, so of course he can sing Spanish beautifully. But why use the skill so pointlessly?

The nearly Carribean-sounding first single, “Baby,” is a little too blissed out for its own good: Banhart sounds like he’s singing in his sleep, and the band comes off like they’re playing in their pajamas. The lyrics feel like they could’ve been written in the stupor of waking, too. “Holy moly/ You’re so funny/ You crack me up,” Banhart sings, matching the cheesiness of his band’s sugary pop performance. Indeed, the biggest problem with What Will We Be is not that it's particularly terrible songwriting; it's just unfocused and detached, with Banhart’s hushed singing consistently sounding more like passivity. Some songs are so nondescript it's hard to even say anything about them.

But there are weaknesses beyond boredom. The most memorable moments of What Will We Be are the truly awful ones. The stadium rock of “16th & Valencia” is almost unspeakably bad — Banhart’s voice is more intense here, yet he still manages to whisper his way through the whole thing. The lounge music of “Brindo” is glaringly out of place, and the genre change is nearly impossible to make sense of in its suddenness. The shift feels superfluous anyway: even in attempting to sound like a different band and like a different singer, Banhart still sounds bored. The result is 50 minutes of music barely any memorable moments. After What Will We Be is over, it’s hard to remember what you’ve been doing for the last hour.

1. Can't Help But Smiling
2. Angelika
3. Baby
4. Goin' Back
5. First Song for B
6. Last Song for B
7. Chin Chin & Muck Muck
8. 16th & Valencia, Roxy Music
9. Rats
10. Maria Lionza
11. Brindo
12. Meet Me At Lookout Point
13. Walilamdzi
14. Foolin'

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