Devendra Banhart, 'What Will We Be' (Reprise)

Critical Mass
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by Mikael Wood

Nobody comes to a Devendra Banhart record for trenchant insight into the human condition. "All my thoughts are hairs on a wild, wild boar," he muses here on "Chin Chin & Muck Muck." Instead, Banhart's albums offer ashram-appropriate guitar strums, trippy-hippie tone poetry and, if you're lucky, at least one tune where he sings from the perspective of a rodent. What Will We Be has all that (check out "Rats"), plus a wee-hours piano-bar ballad and a driving soul-rock jam with more Tom Petty than Vashti Bunyan in it. A big improvement over 2007's ho-hum Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, it's also the most consistently satisfying full-length he's made.

Fans of Banhart's outré tendencies might be surprised that this is also his first major-label disc; after all, he doesn't really seem like the compromising sort. Yet, working alongside producer Paul Butler (from the U.K.'s A Band of Bees), Banhart actually flourishes with a little direction: In the catchy campfire singalongs "Angelika" and "Goin' Back," his appealing eccentricity gains potency when it's packed into more compact forms, while "Baby" and "16th & Valencia, Roxy Music" shimmer with a newfound professionalism. What Will We Be sags toward the end with a handful of snoozy acoustic shuffles and a wack-ass impersonation of the Doors. But mostly, it clicks. Maybe wild boars can be broken.

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