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Devendra Banhart - Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon

Released by XL Records, 9/25/07

Artists that have invented a new style that defies categories are few and far between. Devendra Banhart is one of those rare few; he leaves critics and fans struggling to come up with new definitions for music that’s deceptively simple, but unfolds new levels of meaning and complexity with each listen.

He’s been called the Father of Freak Folk, the Avatar of Naturalismo (his own label for his music) and the leading light of a new Weird Americana. The labels make for good pull quotes, but his influences are more far reaching than they’d lead you to expect. Marc Bolan’s fairy tale rock rubs elbows with the Incredible String Band’s psychedelic folk epics, The Beatles dance the Samba with Gilberto Gil, and they all cram into a 13th Floor Elevator with Victor Jara.

Banhart’s warm, distinctive tenor is achingly pure, a light feathery instrument that also wields unbelievable strength and passion. Every recording he’s created has taken us deeper into his eclectic vision and Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is another album full of surprising creative juxtapositions. Case in point “Seahorse” a tune that starts out sounding like Dave Brubeck circa 1961 before morphing into a crunching metallic cacophony that brings to mind Jim Morrison fronting Deep Purple. After Pete Newsom’s piano finishes its swinging “Take Five” influenced interlude, Banhart and Noah Georgeson drop a bit of mellow metal into the mix. The backing vocalists add Catholic Church harmonies just to keep things interesting while Banhart’s coons about rebirth and happiness.

“Tonada Yanomaminaria” brings to mind Jonathan Richman doing an impression of T. Rex while fronting the Animals. It references 30 years of blues-rock clichés and comes out smelling like a rose. They lyrics, as enigmatic as we’ve come to expect from Banhart speak of love, sex, death, rebirth, fear and salvation. “Bad Girl” is a song about love gone wrong, but there’s none of the rationalization you find in most pop songs. The song starts quiet and builds in passion. Georgeson’s George Harrison type slide guitar and Banhart’s wailing vocals make the song’s pain palpable. Some have described Banhart as overdramatic, but one seldom hears a singer conveying this kind of raw emotion and it’s thrilling.

Banhart’s international impulses inform several tunes. “Samba Vexillographica” which pays tribute to Banhart’s idol Caetano Veloso with its swaying carefree rhythm and psychedelic rock interlude; “Shabop Shalom” sounds like Chad and Jeremy at a do-wop seder asking “Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls,” while the funky Rock en Españole of “Carmencita” is a reverb-drenched delight with another infuriatingly catchy chorus.

Simply put, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon delivers 16 more tracks full of unexpected delights and head spinning happiness that constantly confounds your expectations.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars