The wink and the grin behind Devendra Banhart's fantastic dilettantism continue to render his music enthralling: Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon requires an entirely new way of engaging with unbridled genius. Not only does Banhart begin the album—his fifth—with a delicately plucked song about the afterlife sung in Spanish, he follows it with a formal over-the-shoulder Limey send-off straight out of a Gene Kelly musical ("So Long Old Bean") and a psychedelic samba about flag-making sung in Portuguese. It's a linguistic gauntlet thrown down to weed out the merely curious, or perplex the steadfastly resolved, or just for what-the-fuck-ever. Banhart's partial South American upbringing might earn him the right to commingle his tongues so promiscuously, but it's as frustrating as it is endearing—goddamnit if the rogue doesn't get away with it. And the album might be purple and swollen to bursting with artistic virility, but it's always easy to love a rogue who gets away with it.
As on 2005's brilliant Cripple Crow, Smokey suffers from muddled song progression and is a bit overlong. But rather than bog it down, its shifty, hour-long heft gives it a smorgasbord appeal, like a feast meant to be enjoyed in courses, with retreats to the smoking lounge in between. Case in point: After the aforementioned trifecta, the album properly begins with "Seahorse," which is the most electric, expansive eight minutes put to tape in years. The song is an epic acoustic/electric wish fulfillment that weaves the pastoral spiritualism of "Astral Weeks" with the shamanic sexuality of "L.A. Woman" and the unbound headiness of "Dark Star." Repeat listens prove it merits more praise than can be given here; the album is worth buying for that song alone.
In light of standouts like "Seahorse"; the raunchy, falsetto, Jackson 5 hand-clapper "Lover"; the wide-eyed gospel ode "Saved"; and, um, "Shabop Shalom" (more on that one later)—songs born of entirely different traditions and sporting entirely different arrangements—the album's finely crafted subtlety is astounding. Smokey succeeds because its production is perfectly cohesive; every echo of organ reverb, every extra guitar or flute, every "shoop shoop" backing vocal is natural and necessary. Despite the breadth of his influences and the intensity of his urges, Banhart wisely keeps his sonic palette limited. In contrast, his voice has grown richer and more self-aware in the past two years. His low hushes are lower, his demure drawl more demure, his fallback freaky falsetto freakier than ever. His range and comfort imply he's taking his abilities more seriously while simultaneously taking the piss out of those abilities.
Word is the Topanga Canyon home Banhart lived and recorded Smokey in became something of a neighborhood clubhouse; Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes stopped in to lend strings and Gael García Bernal came over to sing backup. According to interviews, a lot of rum was drunk, and a lot of songs—60-some—were chiseled down to the 16 included here. Again, that such inherently legendary surroundings didn't over-rev Banhart's engine—or that they did, but that this is the album that came out—is a marvel. For every up-tempo groove, there's a downplayed meditation. And though the sequencing leaves the initial slow takeoff at the beginning, its balance makes for a more moving work in the end.
And there's that wink, that grin: Lyrically, Banhart's blushing neo-hippie-ism is tempered by throbbing innuendo; musically, his eclecticism is so surprising it's funny. The spooky, questionable weirdness he showed on Cripple Crow has grown into character and charm (Banhart is still weird, but here it's in the service of the song, not merely for boy-loving weirdness' sake). He dodges both irony and sincerity to end up embodying both, something artful and playful, emotive and hilarious. He can sing from the dejected perspective of the other woman in "The Other Woman," a heavily stoned dub-reggae lament. He can sing with the amphetamine-rushed inflection of Lou Reed on the downtown rocker "Tonada Yanomaninista." He can settle into the pair of beautiful, melancholy love ballads that close the album. And he can go full-blown Jamaican Yiddish mento doo-wop on "Shabop Shalom."
This song is the laugh-out-loud novelty yang to the deeply felt, mind-enhancing yin of "Seahorse." Beginning with a spoken-word intro, Banhart describes the budding courtship between a young Jewish boy and a rabbi's daughter. And then he croons—in a perfectly studied, perfectly vanilla golden-oldies croon—"My shabop shalom baby, won't you shabop shalom with me?" He goes on to rhyme "foul mood" with "Talmud," reference the Dead Sea Scrolls, and throw in the sly epithet "heebie-jeebies."
Banhart is not Jewish. He's not Jamaican. And the soda-shop doo-wop of "Shabop Shalom" is nowhere near his generation. But it's awesome. And goddamnit if the rogue doesn't get away with it.
Get yer freak on: Watch the video for "Seahorse" at www.thestranger.com.