Devendra Banhart, ‘Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon’ (XL)
Much of Devendra Banhart’s appeal since his emergence in 2002 has had to do with the ways in which he’s been able to convince us that he’s not just a standard-issue dirty hippie: Consider the flamenco-flecked folk songs on 2005’s Cripple Crow or the singer’s bizarro gossip-column dalliances with Lindsay Lohan. But on Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, his fifth long-player, Banhart doesn’t seem terribly interested in demonstrating that there’s more in his head than faded peace signs and pot fumes. With its preponderance of droopy folk-rock meditations, this is Banhart’s least discursive outing yet.
As a result, it’s also his most predictable. To be sure, Banhart has developed a distinctively wacky strum-and-warble thing that’s all his own: Hushed, delicate ballads like “Cristobal” and “So Long Old Bean” sound like nobody else — no small feat, considering the army of freak-folk disciples he’s inspired. And Smokey Rolls, which Banhart and his merry men made in Topanga, the woodsy dropout refuge north of Los Angeles, does include a few deviations from the norm: “Shabop Shalom” is a delightfully weird Jewish doo-wop song; “Lover” rides a sunny, Jackson 5-like soul-pop thump; and “Saved” is a juicy gospel-rock rave-up that suggests Banhart’s been cranking the Band lately. But the remainder feels like a reissue of someone else’s surprises.
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