From Devendra Banhart’s emergence from the indie folk scene in 2002 with his first release, “Oh Me Oh My,” his potential has been obvious.
His voice is melodic and seductive at first note, with a heavy vibrato and falsetto that shines on top of a variety of finger picking and simple folk progressions. “Oh Me Oh My” featured a more primitive Devendra Banhart, always reaching for the weird, trying to raise an eyebrow from listeners rather than capture their ears. Whatever his intentions were, they worked as he has slowly honed his sound and broken into the mainstream spotlight.
Since 2002, Banhart has released six solo records, played at festivals such as Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Outside Lands, dated starlet Natalie Portman and recently moved from XL Records to Warner Brothers Records for his latest record, “What Will We Be.” He is said to be the unofficial figurehead of the recently coined New Weird America genre of music that embodies a mixture of psychedelic rock and folk. Listening to his music, it is easy to understand this association.
“What Will We Be” shows maturation from Banhart’s earlier material, which was often hard on the ears, to a flowing, more comfortable sound. Banhart has finally stopped forcing the weird on his listeners and has let his natural sound take over an entire album.
“Can’t Stop Smiling” opens the album with a beachy, whimsical feel that has an assortment of intertwining string instruments on top of a light bass beat. Banhart’s lyrics are hit or miss, alternatively eccentric, childlike, intellectual and poetic. “Can’t Stop Smiling” has lyrics that lie in childhood with an intellectual touch as he sings, “You can’t help but smiling / What fun to not know why.” Banhart speaks to the remaining innocence of his listeners and takes them back to a childlike romanticism.
The following track, “Angelika,” shows Banhart’s musical technicality eloquently placed in his simplicity. The song begins with a simple folk melody with poetic lyrics of philosophy and love until it naturally fades into a jazzy groove with Spanish lyrics, a common occurrence in many of his songs. Banhart’s band of hippie folkies backs him up with a dark, harmonious chorus. Once the listener has been completely immersed in this mood, Banhart fades back into his simple folk style to finish the song.
Next comes “Baby,” a poppy love song with loosely played guitar chords and muffled noodling from the lead guitar, a style that has become a standard for Banhart in his recent years. “Goin’ Back” follows forcefully on the heels of “Baby” and is a definite high point of the album, changing the mood from poppy beach numbers to intricately written folk-rock songs. It’s vintage folk-rock that sounds like Banhart spent some time jamming with Neil Young and the late George Harrison.
At this point the album breaks into sullen, acoustic numbers that mesmerize the listener with Banhart’s powerful voice, orchestral buildups and string sections during “First Song for B” and “Last Song for B.” This also appears later in the album with “Meet Me at the Lookout.” During these songs Banhart can either engulf or lose a listener due to their eccentric, spacey nature that was seen much more in his earlier albums.
“Chin Chin & Muck Muck” is another multi-part song that has lounge-jazz and acoustic shuffling mixed into it. The piece is the launch pad for two of the most intriguing and important songs on the album. The first, “16th & Valencia, Roxy Music,” pays homage to the emerging dance pop genre that MGMT and Phoenix, who recently asked Banhart to remix one of their songs, have popularized. With synthesizer-heavy melodies and pop hooks all over the place, the song is nothing like anything Banhart has produced before. Despite his indie folk touch, the song sounds like it would appear on a Band of Horses or Arcade Fire album.
The second, “Rats,” simply rocks. With a groovy bass line prevalent throughout the whole song, Banhart uses blues chords and riffs that meld classic Led Zeppelin with modern Black Keys. Banhart gives it a psychedelic spin using Jerry Garcia-esque noodling guitar solos before ending in force with the blues again.
The album reverts back into Banhart’s space cadet style with “Maria Lionza” and “Brindo” before wrapping up with two strong finishers. “Walilamdzi” uses somber finger picking and a smoother voice that shows Banhart’s maturation at its best. He does not stretch his voice with the usual heavy vibrato heard in a majority of his folk songs. Instead, he merely sings, manifesting the beauty his voice can hold at its most primitive level.
“Foolin’” is a fun reggae tune that leaves the listener with high spirits. It obtains the vintage reggae quality heard in Peter Tosh songs with distorted, rough organ and guitar chords rather than the clean, precise sound of modern reggae.
The band on Banhart’s new album has been with him since his last release, “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon.” Produced by Paul Butler, Banhart shows ease and relaxation in his recording style despite the switch to a major label. While this switch can prove costly for many artists’ sound, Banhart maintains his psychedelic folk feel while incorporating a mature, comfortable attitude. It’s similar to the way My Morning Jacket or Ryan Adams have maintained artistic validity in the emergence of stardom.
The album’s title is a question of identity, and the answer may never come for Banhart. His nomadic nature of perpetual change will always keep his listeners wondering what will be next for the longhaired folk star.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Davis Brown at Brownfd@colorado.edu.