Devendra Banhart’s “What Will We Be”

On his last album, Smoky Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, Devendra Banhart channeled Jim Morrison to delightful effect.  Of course, that quaver in his voice could also harken Bryan Ferry to mind.  I say “of course,” but really, the connection to Ferry wasn’t made until seeing on What Will We Be — Banhart’s far more successful Topanga-circa-’69 follow-up to Smoky — there’s a song entitled “16th And Valencia Roxy Music”.  Interestingly, the connection here is as much to some of those mid-’70s Eno albums — or maybe even last year’s Eno-Byrne collaboration — as to anything by Roxy Music or Ferry’s solo work.

Beardless and trying harder, Banhart still occupies a unique corner of the musical cosmos, a Venezuelan-Texan hippie leprechaun who can effortlessly capture early ’70s SoCal folk-rock.  What Will We Be is less ambitious but more consistent than Smoky Rolls Down Thunder Mountain, and recaptures some of intense magic of Cripple Creek, still the high water mark in his oeuvre.  He’s no naif, but neither is he faux-naif; he’s somewhere in between, which is a hard balancing act. Devendra Banhart is a funny, highly intelligent craftsman with a unique voice and touch, less contemporary than Beck, and yet operating in that same timeless manner, respectful of rock’s traditions while also highly original.

The problem here is we want a complete album, and as always, there’s noodling and boredom pooling between islands of pop genius.  Someday he’ll put it all together.  Until then we marvel at what we have, and what he will be.

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