True weirdness cannot be confined in a cage for too long. And so we have hippie mystic Devendra Banhart making his major label debut, crafting accessible songs in a way that do not always contain his original anachronistic spirit. But the idiosyncratic singer finds a way to cut loose from some of the more restrained statements on What Will We Be to allow his often arcane and bohemian personality to flourish and break free. Sometimes.
What is immediately apparent is the shocking clarity of the songs—no El Lay canyonesque musical credos, post-Venezuelan phone call musings, or Parisian riffs on tone poems. Nor are there the 3rd generation San Franciscan flower child motifs either. Instead, Banhart allows his international tastes to surface within songs that are quite pleasant and transportational, just not to anywhere too memorably special. The problem here is that like Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, Banhart’s work does not have an overriding conceptual continuity. But at least on that L.A.-recorded album, Banhart’s unpredictability had an engaging charm factor, pushing the material past any specific definitions, and into moments of flaky transcendence.
And so we have What Will We Be, produced by Band of Bees’ Paul Butler, and featuring Banhart’s longtime co-muse-in-hippiedom, Noah Georgeson. The duo, along with Greg Rogove on drums, Rodrigo Amarante on guitar, and Luckey Remington on bass, help Banhart shape these songs within his singular vision, and that accessible form is really what gives this major label debut its true definition, crafted by Banhart’s large charismatic presence and—if one has ever spent five minutes with the gentle, friendly man’s music—his oddly tangible aura.
Indeed, Banhart transcends the sometimes restrained nature of his songs, to create an exotic tapestry, dipping into a surreal lounge-y vibe (“Can’t Help But Smiling” and the brilliantly laidback, yet universe-encompassing waltz on “Chin Chin and Muck Muck”), an often south-of-the-border beautifully romantic tone (“Baby” and “Maria Lionza”), a loopy reggae milieu drifting through the room, bypassing souls on its way out the door (“Foolin’”), interesting detours which find their way home (“Angelika”), and, at times, a view of a hippie showing off for the yuppie squares (“16th & Valencia, Roxy Music”), while the real heads wander up the street in the Mission for a caffeine fix at the Zeitgeist. One hopes that Banhart continues to shape his incredibly cinematic vision without attempting to make his tunes too iPod-friendly for the non-believers. Have muse, will listen, Dev.
Randy Ray is a Senior Editor of Jambands.com