January 2008

Devendra Banhart - Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon
XL Recordings xlcd283
Format: CD
Released: 2007

by Shannon Holliday

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Bohemianism is reborn on Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, the latest California-inspired recording by Devendra Banhart. This is his fifth album and a beautiful amalgamation of musical styles. The entire disc transitions from Tropicalia jazz to Beach Boys rock to do-wop poetry to Roy Orbison-esque crooning and back again. Many tracks incorporate the native Indian wooden sruti box, which establishes a classical drone, while the vocals are spoken word or sometimes Portuguese and Spanish lyrical balladry.

"Sea Horse", in 6/8 time, is reminiscent of John Coltrane’s version of "Favorite Things" and George Harrison’s solo period Krishna-inspired themes --  e.g.: "I wanna see you come back as the Light." Meanwhile, "Sea Side" was recorded on an actual ocean schooner, complete with foghorn and dingy sound effects thanks to captain/engineer Noah Georgeson, who also contributes instrumentation on several tracks.

Banhart takes every opportunity to let his freak flag fly, and while at times his approach is a bit ostentatious (gospel backup singers; horn arrangements suitable for announcing royalty), it is never artificial. Overall, the album is well arranged and produced. His songwriting approaches depths unknown to common storytellers and gives the impression that he is spinning an elaborate web that only he foresees in fantastic finished form.