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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