What we have here with Mr. Banhart’s sixth is wine cooler beach jams to the max. From good-witch acoustic sing-along magic to stoned jazzy wave-break rock, Devendra’s big label debut is split between tracks that tick like strange toys and those that are pure Crosby, Stills and Nash. A basement-made bundle of hypnotic unpredictability, this one looks to be a grower.
Setting aside the grand orchestrations of Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, Devendra Banhart's What Will We Be is everything its predecessor was not: straight-forward, cleanly produced, consistently laid-back (to nearly Jack Johnson proportions), and free of ambition. Banhart enlists the same band as last time (Noah Georgeson, Greg Rogove, Luckey Remington, and Rodrigo Amarante), but hired production whiz Paul Butler, whose records with A Band of Bees are some of the most striking productions of the 2000s. The double-tracked vocals give the album the same air as Banhart's early four-track experiments, but there's no haunted quality, just an occasional hippie-dippie aside in his delivery.
On freak-folk poster boy Devendra Banhart's seventh full-length album, he steps back from his previous acoustic ramblings. Some will be sad to find that his pulsating vocals and wacky storytelling have subsided, and that his vague lyrics have grown simpler. But anyone who's avoided Banhart's hippy-busker tunes now have a reason to give him a chance.
For most of this decade, Devendra Banhart’s seemingly effortless ability to make music that referenced classic Laurel Canyon folk but was also unmoored by time allowed him to tower over his freak-folk contemporaries. He doesn’t just fall under the freak-folk banner; he is freak-folk. But around 2007, cracks began forming in his bearded façade. Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Mountain, his 2007 album, was a half-solid, half-overblown self-indulgent affair, and his 2008 album with bandmate Greg Rogove as Megapuss was such a joke, I fear that using it as a reference is out of date, and it came out last year.
Captain of the New, Weird America seems slightly less strange on major-label debut “Please destroy me!” pleads freakfolk flagbearer Devendra Banhart on “First Song for B,” one of the many contemplative yet insistent acoustic portraits that dot his sixth full-length, What Will We Be. Later, he proclaims, “I’m never goin’ back!” While Banhart is likely essaying a relationship caught between pillar and post, he could just as easily be ruminating on his place in the musical world circa 2009. Having emerged as one of the weird-beard genre’s foremost exponents (his middle name is Obi, after all, as in the Star Wars character), his Reprise debut slowly reveals itself as a more straightforward affair.
Though it wasn’t that well-received by the critics, I quite enjoyed Devendra Banhart’s last album. Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon found the singer in jovial good form—from the goofy comedics of “Shabop Shalom” to the Charolastra-worthy “Seahorse”, the album had a slacker optimism that was difficult to hate. And despite not being quite as ambitious as his earlier Cripple Crow, or as goodnaturedly warped as his breakout Rejoicing in the Hands.
Within one five-month span during 2004, Devendra Banhart-- a hirsute, multilingual, 23-year-old enigma with a wanderer's tale to tell and a sprawling, intriguing debut to his name-- released two 16-song albums: the near-flawless Rejoicing in the Hands and its less cohesive though memorable follow-up, Niño Rojo. He sang about human fragility and little yellow spiders, about old folk songs and with old folk singers, about the beauty of beards and the wealth of the world. With a versatile warble and a graceful touch to the guitar, Banhart seemed slightly manic yet strangely endearing, the rare eccentric who could turn the lightest of larks into irresistible bits of tunes.
He is the grand high priest of the new wyrd America-freak-pysch-folk movement. He decides exactly who can sing in what ethereal voice when. He dictates when Josephine Foster can stop living in a tree, the exact hours of the day Diane Cluck is allowed online, as well as the precise length of Samuel Beam’s beard. Or perhaps not; he measures no beard but his own, yet whether he likes it or not, Devendra Banhart is seen as a representative of a group of musicians, mostly Americans, who play variations on folk music and often sing in odd voices about strange things.