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Devendra Banhart

+ {Megapuss}

While many have dipped their toe in the freak folk pond, few have evoked its unhinged magic like DEVENDRA BANHART. His singular style has evolved from lone troubadour to sun-kissed psychedelia peddler.
Born May 30, 1981 in Houston, Texas and having spent his formative years between Caracas, Venezuela, L.A. and San Francisco, the art school dropout took to busking at 14, honing his skills as a solo performer. He decamped to Paris, France in early 2000, cosying up with the US indie rock cognoscenti – and finding the likes of BECK, SONIC YOUTH and SWANS leader Michael Gira among his growing coterie of admirers.
While his debut of homespun, homemade acoustica CD-r THE CHARLES C. LEARY (2002) {*5} made little impression beyond his clique, Gira was impressed enough to release a collection of his early highlights on his label Young God as OH ME OH MY… (2002) {*7}. It took for his second album proper – 2004’s REJOICING IN THE HANDS {*8} to make an album which shows BANHART’s skill at a deft, scuttling phrasing and off-kilter melodies, where songs like `This Is The Way’ and the fantastically titled `This Beard Is For Siobhan’ are simple and playful.
He followed this in quick succession with NINO ROJO (2004) {*9}. His weary cover of Ella Jenkins’ `Wake Up, Little Sparrow’ is breath-taking and `Little Yellow Spider’ (heard by millions on an Orange mobile TV commercial) succinctly illustrated how his music was becoming the perfect of the beautiful and the absurd.
BANHART became a figurehead of a burgeoning freak folk movement in the US – although “movement” is too strong a word for a bunch of people hanging out jamming – which included kindred spirits VETIVER and JOANNA NEWSOM. CRIPPLE CROW (2005) {*7} was a sprawling, bawling, and often dawdling collection which depending on what format one bought could be between 22 and 30 songs! BANHART’s lack of self-editing was counteracted by some great songs, including several in Spanish, tipping the nod once again to his Venezuelan heritage. The album cover lay somewhere between “Sgt. Pepper’s”, The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND’s “Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter”, anything by TYRANNOSAURUS REX and summed up the celebratory, inclusive nature of Devendra’s music at the time.
After several albums of spare, stripped down almost entirely acoustic music, BANHART decamped to his old stomping ground of Topanga, California with his band the Spiritual Bonerz, which included Joanna’s brother Pete Newsom in their number, to record SMOKEY ROLLS DOWN THUNDER CANYON (2007) {*7}. With the spirit, if not musical sensibility of Laurel Canyon in his heart, Devendra seemed keen to deliberately play with his own conventions as he drew in various collaborations including members of The STROKES, The BLACK CROWES and impressively a pair of true folk legends in LINDA PERHACS and VASHTI BUNYAN. The result was disappointingly scattergun and unfocused, throwing in as it does flashes of reggae, funk, samba and soul into an already crowded melting pot to negligible effect.
In growing up, BANHART has grown less effective with age. On the back of a MEGAPUSS collaboration with Greg Rogove (SURFING (2008) {*6}), his sixth album (and first for Warner Brothers) further illustrated his ability to grate by constantly throwing genres into the mix. WHAT WILL WE BE (2009) {*6} is a limpid collection that sounds frightfully cliched, considering how idiosyncratic his output was less than five years earlier. The neat pseudo-soul groove of `Baby’ was just pedestrian. A Grammy nomination for Best Packaging was damning the record with faint praise and just about as much as it deserved.
BANHART has been relatively quiet since, signing to NEIL YOUNG’s management team, contributing to the Red Hot And Blue series of AIDS awareness compilation albums and a film sound-tracking exercise from him and BECK for the Todd Solondz film Life During Wartime among his few pops above the parapet since 2009.
Four years tripping out on some faraway beach – or so it seemed judging by his cosmic and carefree approach on MALA (2013) {*7} – cool dude Devendra takes his exotica-loaded folk to new extremes. Fourteen intimate lo-fi songs penned by the man himself (despite `Won’t You Come Over’ pinching bits from ALTHEA & DONNA’s “Uptown Top Ranking”), BANHART’s BOLAN impersonations are thankfully limited; `Hatchet Wound’ is one such ditty. Name-checking “going to see Suede playing” on the dreamy track, `Daniel’, the singer yearns forlornly on `Fur Hildegard von Bingen’ (a 12th century mystic/Saint) and the almost similar, `Never Seen Such Good Things’. The star tracks are undoubtedly the dulcet doo-wop duet (with Serbian fiancee Ana Kras), `Your Fine Petting Duck’, the mournful `Won’t You Come Home’ and the plucky, cinematic “Third Man”-esque instrumental, `The Ballad Of Keenan Milton’; the latter an ode to the pro skateboarder who died in 2001. Are you “bad” or “cutesy small”, Mala is either in the respective negative Spanish meaning or the positive Serbian translation – the answer was indeed up to the listener.
There’s no doubt that Devendra would’ve been a bigger hit had he been a 60s star, instead the yearning singer/songwriter (and visual artist) had to contend with plying his trade among a barrage of retro-bleaters. 2016’s APE IN PINK MARBLE {*8} – featuring the quivering `Middle Names’ – was eclectic enough to please lovers of his quirky, laptop folk/disco (`Fancy Man’ and `Fig In Leather’ prime examples). Donning his cap to electronica-exotica through the JOBIM-like `Theme For A Taiwanese Woman In Lime Green’ and `Jon Lends A Hand’, BANHART could somehow mix ‘n’ match between ENO and FERRY on `Mourner’s Dance’, `Good Time Charlie’ and the snoozy `Celebration’.
Forced to liberate his free-spirited freak-folk in the fringes (an indie 7-inch-45 reading of JOAN OF ARC’s `Shown And Told’ a prime example), the eclectic BANHART was back in the fray with his quintessentially quavering MA (2019) {*8}. The Nonesuch-endorsed record re-discovered Devendra’s fixation with nostalgia and exotica a la openers `Is This Nice?’ and `Kantori Ungaku’, whilst respective homage to the late LEONARD COHEN (through the derivative `Memorial’) and BOLAN (by way of `Now All Gone’; ft. CATE LE BON), were highlights in their own hermetical way. Then again, if the Latino-meets-glam `My Boyfriend’s In The Band’ was sublime in its sweet ‘n’ sour delivery motif, the track most certainly had competition in his VASHTI BUNYAN torch duet, `Will I See You Tonight?’. All ‘n’ all the album deserved better sales figures.
© MC Strong 2011/MR-GFD2 // rev-up MCS Mar2013-Sep2019

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