Devendra Banhart Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon Review

Album. Released 2007.  

BBC Review

yes, the freak flag-flying icon of 'out there' folk is back to wave his beard in your...

Serena Kutchinsky 2007

The mystical love-child of the nu-folk movement, Devendra Banhart exerts an inexplicable pull on the music world. People that don’t like folk, like Devendra Banhart. People who think long-haired hippies belong in the sixties, like Devendra Banhart. People who think singer/songwriters belong in Room 101, still lap up anything by this free-spirited folkster.

So it’s with a degree of trepidation that I approach his new album. Are my critical sensitivities going to stand firm, could I dare to criticise the international pin-up of the folk scene? Thankfully, I don’t have serious cause to. Yes, it’s slightly over-long – weighing in at a weighty 16 tracks - but Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is his most sophisticated, sprawling work so far.

Recorded late at night in the hills of hippy Californian haven, Topanga, it’s infused with caffeine-fuelled nocturnal energy. Banhart dances from genre to genre, lingering long enough to record the odd ten minute epic and then skipping off again through reggae, rock, jazz and Latino rhythms. His distinctive, lilting growl guiding you through to this entrancing musical jumble.

Reference points abound – there’s a nod to his Venezuelan roots on the lush, tropical sounding “Samba Vexillographica”, a dash of 50s doo-wop with a Jewish twist on “Shabop Shalom” (listen out for the dubious lyric: ‘When I'm ever in a foul mood/ I've gotta see you in your Talmud’), and a psychedelic smattering of sixties influences: a drop of Leonard Cohen here (“Seahorse”), a touch of Donovan there (“Lover”) and the odd Beatlesy flourish (“Bad Girl”).

Banhart shrugs off the freak-folk label so often applied to his warblings, preferring to define his style as ‘naturalismo’ – reflecting his view that the organic and the artificial aren't so far apart in music, life and, possibly, the universe. Musician, poet, philosopher is there anything this man can’t do?

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