le 22 mars 2011
Devendra Banhart perhaps has no equal even within the supposed `freak folk' genre. There are strains of Tim Buckley or even old school Bob Dylan through many of his compositions, but this is a musician and composer who exists and functions on an entirely different plane - one that isn't immediately identifiable, and certainly one that isn't commercial or mainstream. Aesthetically, his sonic palette is geared more toward those who gravitate toward existentialist fare such as Espers, Ivy, Andrew Bird or Joanna Newsom; which of course means that this material is very, very good.
Of all his albums, "Cripple Crow" is the most misunderstood, even though its perhaps his most consistent work behind "Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon". Smokey was an album for the ages - inimitable and beguiling with depth beyond its obvious layers, and "Cripple Crow" has similar tones to it - when its good, its masterful, and when its average, its still great (not that anything on Banharts album comes close to being termed something as inflammatory as average).
Before delving into a Banhart album, it pays to know that he is fluent in Spanish (indeed, his back history is culturally rich and significant), and he brings these elements to the fore on much of his work. There are entire Spanish language tracks, some Spanglish tracks, and some English language tracks with a Sergio Mendes mood to them. When Banhart looks to the 1960s and the sounds of Astrud Gilberto, he produces such stuff as Track 2 : "Santa Maria da Feira", one of many sunny songs that cruise along like a lost vacation afternoon in the Bahamas about forty years ago.
To say that this album is `Beatlesesque' is an understatement. The hooks, melodies, and chord progression reminded this author a lot of "The White Album". Songs like "Heard Someone Say" and "Long Haired Child" are a perfect amalgamation of Dylans' early folk attempts as well as Cream & many of the San Francisco underground acts from the late 1960s-early 1970s. This is a fantastic tribute to an era - but more importantly, these are full fledged and fully realized tracks all their own; and the repeat value here is immense.
However, newer listeners might listen to this album and wonder why they never ventured near a Banhart record before. Somewhat unfairly, he has been lumped into a musical movement tag that does not do his music justice. For example, if `freak folk' makes you think of psychedelic music, hallucinogenic drugs, and an overdose of sitars and eastern instrumentation, you couldn't be more off the mark. Somewhat tellingly, these influences are of course present here if you really looked for them, but that does nothing to deter from the fact that Devendra's unique voice & turn of phrase transform these songs from musical experiments into unreplicatable masterworks. The stroke of genius here is a nice mix of full length tracks, shorter songs that work as `interludes', if you will, playful tracks that could be childrens' songs in the wrong hands, and some really classy Spanish language ballads that are so quirky and different that they immediately stick.
Try the two minute long "The Beatles" which veers from English to Spanish within twenty songs - a vibrant mix of latin influences and straightforward songwriting; leading to "Dragonflys" a spellbinding 0:59 second duet that is whispery, delicate, surreal and mysterious. Its moments like these that will have you reaching for the replay button, not to mention developing a newfound respect for the person who has recorded these in the first place. Also, unlike most contemporary independent releases, "Cripple Crow" actually gets stronger towards its final half. No doubt about it, this is a lengthy, involving record. Not lengthy as in "Have One of Me" by Joanna Newsom; but it deserves the better space of a late evening to fully immerse yourself into - there is much here to enjoy, relish and dissect.
Towards the latter part of the record, we are hit with three epics in a row. This trilogy forms the centerpiece of the album - its' bold vision and true artistry coming to the fore in such a developed fashion that its impossible but to gaze on in awe. These tracks - "Cripple Crow", "Hey Mama Wolf" and "Inaniel" are breathtaking - not only because they're really good songs, but because its very rare that the listening public are treated to such a display of young talent this early in a career - I'm reminded of "Ys" by Joanna Newsom where all five songs held together as a coherent piece of work far outstripping anything she had ever done prior - but Banhart moves you in a less theatrical way - his productions are understated, not over the top; and this is primarily mood music, where instrumentation and songwriting need to be carefully listened to, languidly. Yes, there are crazy little ditties like "Chinese Children" (which of course caused some ridiculous controversies at the time of release), but these are bookended by songs of such high caliber that you turn to them again, only to find they weren't silly ditties in the first place, and hold wisdom in places where wisdom might be expected to be missing.
The end of the album is slow-paced, melancholy, and very fulfilling - the final three tracks veer into bluesy Jeff Buckley territory, with a lot of subdued piano and guitar work. What is interesting about Banhart is that his lack of pretension is a breath of fresh air - every song on "Cripple Crow" is very different - theres no specific underlying theme (despite a lot of commentary on the contrary by many critics), and the more playful tracks hide a darker side to them that sets the tone perfectly for an album that needs to be invested in.
While I wouldn't say its better than some of Banharts' other works - Smokey still remains his best by a long shot - this is indeed one his more beguiling sets - and its vastly underrated even within his own catalog. The music here at times reminds one of both Burt Bacharach & Antonio Carlos Jobim; with a extra dollop of Brasil '66 on the side - only set to lyrics by the lovechild of Frida Kahlo and Margaret Atwood. If this is the sort of literary insanity that drives you or interests you, then Banhart may have been the artist you've been looking for. An acquired taste, but once you try him out, theres no going back.
Also remember, and this is important - there is a double LP version of this album, released solely in Japan but still available through many vendors, that come with eight additional tracks (nothing as tacky as remixes though) that widen the span of the original release with excellent results. Its ironic that some of these songs - some of the best Banhart has recorded - have been relegated to B-side status, but it pays to track them down. With these tracks, the listing on Cripple Crow grows to 30 whopping songs - certainly fit for a double album, or a triple album, in the LP age, and definitely one that deserves more recognition.
As a reference, here are some of the other albums you would enjoy if this album suited your tastes - "Ys" by Joanna Newsom; "Grey Oceans" by Cocorosie; "The Trials of Van Occupanther" by Midlake; "Armchair Apocrypha" by Andrew Bird; "Theology" by Sinead O'Connor; "Wounded Rhymes" by Lykke Li; and "Heartland" by Owen Pallett.
Five Stars. An essential and indispensable addition to your growing music collection.
1. "Now That I Know" - 4:53
2. "Santa Maria Da Feira" - 4:35
3. "Heard Somebody Say" - 3:20
4. "Long Haired Child" - 3:45
5. "Lazy Butterfly" - 4:00
6. "Quedate Luna" - 3:07
7. "Queen Bee" - 2:44
8. "I Feel Just Like a Child" - 4:46
9. "Some People Ride the Wave" - 2:27
10. "The Beatles" - 1:44
11. "Dragonflys" - 0:59
12. "Cripple Crow" - 5:58
13. "Inaniel" - 3:43
14. "Hey Mama Wolf" - 3:52
15. "Hows About Tellin a Story" - 1:21
16. "Chinese Children" - 5:17
17. "Sawkill River" - 1:52
18. "I Love That Man" - 2:26
19. "Luna de Margarita" (Simon Diaz) - 2:07
20. "Korean Dogwood" - 4:02
21. "Little Boys" - 5:20
22. "Canela" - 1:53
The CD release of this album also includes an MP3 bonus track "White Reggae Troll/Africa".
Bonus tracks on double LP:
The double LP release of this album includes eight additional tracks, as well as an alternative cover of the normal album cover replaced with photographs of Devendra's own fans.
23. "There's Always Something Happening"
24. "La Ley"
26. "Stewed Bark of an Old Oak Tree"
27. "La Pastorcita Perdida"
28. "Likety Split"
29. "Ice Rat"
30. "White Reggae Troll"