Devendra Banhart: Cripple Crow
Perhaps the best time you can possibly have with your track-skip button
Well, you can’t grumble about value for money when you buy a Devendra Banhart album – with his fourth proper long-player, besides the 22 tracks, you also get a knowingly cod-reggae MP3 bonus track crammed onto the body of the disc. But like buying baked beans in bulk, while having so much doesn’t mean the individual quality is any less, there’s something overwhelming about just having so much stuff piled up in front of you in one go. The presence of a brief catch-your-breath track, ‘Dragonflys’ [sic], halfway through suggests even Devendra’s aware he’s cooked up more than you can chew, and certainly this album works best when approached as a buffet rather than a single sitting.
Listen all the way through, and the contents start to arrange themselves into a Venn Diagram, as three different, smaller collections show through: there’s a bunch of songs about children (being a parent, being a kid, and, erm being a sperm); a set of songs sung in Spanish which sound so much more joy-filled than the English ones you’ll be reaching for the Linguaphone tapes to find out what the joke you’re missing out on actually is and, finally, a third section that is closest to what we’ve come to expect from a Banhart album – that lingering, acoustic stuff which he does so well, but by now offers him little in the way of a challenge.
But while this might be a trio of albums co-habitating, everyone’s started to pick up habits off each other. Just when you think you’ve got a song pegged, it wanders off and becomes something else. So ‘Long Haired Child’ is for three minutes a basic march, musing on the thermal properties of a beard as a combover (as a general rule of thumb, the more effort Dev pours into producing a witty lyric, the lighter the musical setting will be). But as soon as the end comes into view, it suddenly flips into Bowie’s ‘Sound And Vision’. Likewise, ‘When They Come’ ghosts its way past you, all barely-there, but by the time it finishes, it’s somehow materialised into something Spiritualized wouldn’t be ashamed to put their name to.
As problems go, having too wide a range isn’t the worst star to be born under, and Banhart manages to pretty much nail everything he shoots for. Funky and filthy? He’s there on ‘I Feel Just Like A Child’. Badly Drawn Boy coming on like Chas’n’Dave? Not only does he have a crack at that on ‘Some People Ride The Wave’, but he also adds in mouth-trumpet noises which don’t leave you wanting to aim something heavy at his head. Sometimes his voice doesn’t quite get to the places his songs would lead to, but luckily for him there’s enough going on to distract the listener’s attention.
‘Cripple Crow’ is way too much, in a way we don’t get given often enough these days. Take it all in at one sitting and you’ll end up bloated. But little and often? It’s a cut-and-come-again treat.
Simon Hayes Budgen