All Together Now

Devendra Banhart's latest indicates his neo-folk movement may just be hitting its stride

I first met Devendra Banhart in December 2002. He was 21 years old, and he had just released his introductory record, Oh Me Oh My ... the Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit. Nice, unassuming title, that.

We met in Santa Monica, on a street full of shops near the beach; Devendra's stepdad dropped him off. As I would later write about our encounter, I was expecting someone aloof or erratic, a crackpot character out of a Tim Burton movie: Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice. His debut -- a guitar-and-voice affair full of songs about snails and teeth and temples, recorded on answering machines and four-tracks in various corners of the world -- sounded like a tape you'd find in a flea market, like a deranged man chanting and screeching into a mike. I was about to meet an acid casualty whom someone had mistook for a genius, I figured.

Well, Devendra was eccentric, but he wasn't aloof or cagey or too far gone. He was sweet, garrulous, and unguarded. We sat in an Irish pub that afternoon and drank Jameson and jumped willy-nilly from topic to topic. We talked about his itinerant life (Venezuela, Topanga Canyon, Paris); his short-lived attempt at art school; his first few San Francisco shows at the now-defunct "Monday Night Hoot," where the promoters would have to sneak the young folk singer into Café Du Nord because he was under 21. As we parted company, he tore the cover off an old book from his backpack, drew a picture on it, and handed it over, a gift. It's hanging next to me as I write this. "Keep up the good fight," it says.

Less than three years since that meeting, the cheerful, once-naive Banhart has turned himself into the face of the neo-folk movement that's yielded an ever-growing procession of similar artists and an ever-growing audience for their work. Two weeks ago, at the 25th annual CMJ Music Marathon in New York City, crowds lined up around the block to catch Banhart's set on opening night. Shortly thereafter he flew to Paris to perform on not one, but sevendifferent French TV shows over seven consecutive days, playing for an estimated audience of 15 million. You could say he's big in Europe.

This is all on the heels of the release of the closest thing the neo-folk movement may yet have to a manifesto: Cripple Crow, Banhart's most ambitious work to date. Recorded in a house in Woodstock, the album features a rogues' gallery of instruments and players, and its cover art -- shot here in Buena Vista Park, depicting roughly two dozen scraggly types, many of them contributors to the record, dressed as their folkiest imitation of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- is a veritable statement of purpose: We're here, we're queer, get used to it.

Are we getting used to it? The jury's still out. Reviews of Cripple Crowhave so far run the gamut, from the glowing screeds of indie bibles like Pitchfork (8.4) to the tepid shrugs of mainstream rags like Spin (C plus). Then again, in the first week following its Sept. 13 release, the record sold a pretty respectable 4,500 copies. Remember people, this is folk music.

With any luck, those numbers will steadily increase in the next couple of months. Music critics say this all the time when an artist releases a milestone album, but I mean it: Forget everything you thought you knew about Devendra Banhart. Forget his wily warble and his lo-fi aesthetic, his two-minute song-sketches and his impenetrable lyrics; whether you loved those things in the past or not, they're gone (well, not entirely the last one, but he's getting better). Cripple Crowfinds Banhart all grown up, filling the big shoes that his talent and perseverance have set in front of him. (Indeed, contrary to his scruffy look, Banhart is quite driven, playing an active role in assembling his army; I've heard rumors that he calls up obscure bands he likes out of the blue to introduce himself, forging connections across states and even countries.)

Previous albums found the songwriter kicking up dust in the same square foot of sonic space for two dozen tracks on end, piling one minimal, finger-picked ditty on top of another. But here he springs gazellelike through sounds, channeling Brazilian maestro Sergio Mendes in one moment ("Pensando Enti"), jolly songsmith Randy Newman in the next ("Some People Ride the Wave"), and '60s French fox Serge Gainsbourg a little later ("Chinese Children"). There's an honest-to-goodness anti-war song that actually sounds like it was made in 1971, "Heard Somebody Say," and a slow, Janis-like R&B lope turned doo-wop in "Little Boy." Over 22 tracks, Banhart samples every snack on the late-'60s/early-'70s psych-pop buffet.

What holds the jukebox joy ride together is the cast of characters that feel just out of frame on every track, ready to catch their leader should he pass out in a huff. You hear them in the wings on what might as well be Banhart's theme song, "I Feel Like a Child": Before the track begins, a voice or two, then a percussion instrument or three, squeaks or clanks or giggles. A sense of community pervades this record; maybe it's a movement, maybe it's a cult (it doesn't help matters that Banhart is growing increasingly to resemble Charles Manson). Whatever it is, it's not formed yet. As evidenced by Cripple Crow, it's just now beginning to take shape.

Oh me oh my, the way the days go by ....

 
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