To download a free MP3 of Devendra Banhart's "Seahorse," click here.
Folk rocker Devendra Banhart has gotten his mystical mood music down to an art on Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, an album that, in time, reveals itself. With the same lush compositions that have earned him his cult following, Smokey is an eclectic and gorgeous collection of songs with echoes of Tropicalia, Latin, psychedelia, and soul.
Raised for much of his life among the slums of Caracas, Venezuela, 26-year-old Banhart emphasizes his roots by lacing a trio of cancións into this ambitious, 16-song disc. Burnished by Banhart’s warbling tenor, Smokey begins with “Cristobal,” on which Banhart picks a wistful tune from his cuatro, a four-string Spanish guitar that sounds like a cranked music box, while actor Gael Garcia Bernal quietly duets. (The song is on the score for Bernal’s new film Déficit.) Throughout the recording of Smokey, Banhart’s secluded Topanga Canyon, California home served as a cosmic common ground for proud freaks of the modern folk scene, leading to additional guest appearances from the likes of Black Crowe Chris Robinson, English singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan, and ’70s folk singer Linda Perhacs.
For the gospel number “Saved,” Banhart invited soul singers Maxine and Julie Waters and Mona Lisa Young, who regularly back Robinson, to raise the rafters with their killer pipes. The disc continues to unfold in disparate directions; tribal murmurings erupt from “Samba Vexillographica” and a piano hammers out the breath-stopping break-up song “I Remember.” The eight-minute centerpiece “Seahorse” emerges in a long, lazy puff, unfurling from cooed harmonies and curious instruments before dissolving into psychedelia powered by Banhart’s Les Paul.
Coming from the same guy who pencils on his waxen eyeliner eyes and dons a dress in recent publicity photos, the gender-bending Banhart shimmies that much more convincingly into Motown on “Shabop Shalom” and slow dances coyly through “Bad Girl.” “I’ve been a bad girl,” he sings. “I ain’t playing fair/ I want you to be free/ But I don’t want to share.”
Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is a dense work that takes time but not effort to digest. Deft and devastating, this is one of 2007’s finest albums.