Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon
Being a wandering minstrel must be liberating, but at some point, you’ve just got to lay down roots. That’s where we found Devendra Banhart on his last album, 2005’s ‘Cripple Crow’:holed up in Woodstock with a new coterie of beardy friends nicknamed The Hairy Fairy Band, and blowing up his curious folk songs up into rock jams that smelt like the inside of a hash pipe. It was fun, sure – but you couldn’t help but pine for the quaint-voiced starchild that got left behind.
Now, Devendra’s on the move again. Recorded mostly in LA’s bohemian Topanga Canyon and partly, apparently, on a sailboat en route to Catalina, an island off the coast of California, ‘Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon’ comes on like the Hairy Fairies’ vacation record. Goodbye to kaftans and campfire strums and hello to new Devendra – the super-stoned rock star, roaming the beach in grass skirt and serenading the sea creatures in wobble-voiced Spanish and Portuguese. Devendra calls his new sound “space reggae”, which in practice means an eddying mix of coconut-clopping Tropicalia, bubblegum doo-wop, sweet gospel and wiggy vintage rock that seems to switch moods – and, indeed, quality – with the changing tides. Musos will finger ‘Samba Vexilographica’ as a homage to Tropicalia king Caetano Veloso, but it’s a confusing moment as you realise that it could actually be a Spanish-language version of Cliff Richard’s ‘The Young Ones’. ‘Seahorse’ opens with Banhart singing “I-I-I wanna be a little seahorse” over snaking jazz, like Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’, before suddenly undergoing a rather worrying transformation into Led Zeppelin with a Jim Morrison impersonator on vox.
It’s frustrating because you feel when Devendra does what he does best, he does it easily, effortlessly – multi-lingual cosmic love songs that simmer with strange imagery, emotions stripped down to the core. If you can wait it out ’til, jeez, the 16th song here, you’ll come upon perhaps the sweetest song Banhart has ever written. ‘My Dearest Friend’ somehow bridges the gap between those earliest demos and the bigger, wiggier rock beast that he’s become. Building from a soothing Indian drone, it finds him humming over dancing acoustic guitar, and then chorusing sadly: “I’m gonna die of loneliness/For sure”. Other times, though, he seems content to slide into smarmy pastiche. Take ‘Shabop Shalom’ – it’s well-played, but really we’re not a million miles from ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic here, and that’s not a good thing.
The main problem with ‘…Thunder Canyon’ though is it’s long – 72 minutes long – which suggests when Banhart let his muse fly free, he forgot to keep a check on his ego, too. At its best, this is subtle, touching, beautiful. At its worst, it’s meandering and smug. You’re entertained, but unsettled. So is Devendra Banhart freak-folk seer, or hippy jester with an ear for pastiche? Maybe there’s only one way to find out. Wax up that surfboard, and head for the reef.