While there’s a lot to be said for preserving an artist’s original sound, after four releases to his name, one might say that it’s about time Devendra Banhart has decided to try on a full studio sound for size. Perhaps taking heart from the fact that a similar step managed to work wonders for nu-folk colleague Joanna Newsom, Noah Georgeson, the man who oversaw the recording of The Milk Eyed Mender, has been brought on board not only as a producer, but as a band member to boot. Though he may not be employing orchestras and brass sections just yet, with Cripple Crow, Banhart finally moves on from the lo-fi, tape hiss feel that his music has maintained since his days recording on answering machines and sleeping on couches…but that’s not to say he’s lost any of that Bohemian edge. If anything, with a clearer sound, a set of discernable production values, and a band of friends in tow, all the eclectic elements that comprise Banhart’s unconventional world shine through more apparent than ever.
However, apart from the slightest hint at that richer, broadened sound, the delectable “Now That I Know” opens the album as if to re-assure all that nothing will be lost in the forthcoming transition. That same presence of a mysterious, hushed intimacy remains intact, and when a cello begins to smoothly echo the lines of his humming ever so slightly, it’s not only the Devendra Banhart we’ve come to know and love, but it’s him at his best. Tellingly, rather than ride that dynamic for the length of the album, the next three songs are considerably diverse: “Pensando Enti” is a light, breathy ballad sung in Spanish, the tinkling piano and soothing harmonies of “Heard Somebody Say” make it a soft yet pensive anti-war protest that could have easily been recorded four decades ago, and the electric “Long Haired Child,” which shifts curiously from a Clash-like beat to a doo-wop reverie, is an altogether funky tune about being so cold during the winter that you resolve to make sure your children have healthy, flowing locks of hair.
The presence of “The Hairy Fairies,” and a hoard of different instruments in their hands, ensure that outings such as these are continuously fleshed out and kept as lively, vibrant affairs. “Lazy Butterfly,” for example, features an intoxicating blend of Sitar and Eastern percussion with an inter-lacing harmony falling between Banhart and close friend Andy Cabic (of Vetiver). It’s a partnership capable of cooking up the likes of a whispered yet swinging Latin rhythm, wriggling through the dirt like a snake on “Quetante Luna,” or as on “I Do Dig a Certain Girl,” capturing the same caressing, candle-lit magic associated with the pair’s “wyrd-folk” contemporaries – just the kind found on Banhart’s wonderful compilation “Golden Apples of the Sun.”
In other places, the full-bodied, up-tempo sound that the Fairies bring to the mix makes proceedings feel like an outright party; fun and imaginative, the likes of “I Feel Like a Child” and “Chinese Children” are indicative of a new direction Banhart is intent on exploring, “Space Reggae” – folk you can dance to. Similarly, while light-hearted musings “The Beatles” and “Dragonflies” catch Banhart and company making brief but quirky stopovers mid-way through, “Little Boys,” on the other hand, is thoroughly tongue in cheek. With the help of Georgeson’s lead guitar (which, throughout the album, has lent some fine slides and subtle fret-work), Banhart embarks on a soulful dose of throaty crooning on the subject of a schizophrenic hermaphrodite. Although it all sounds slightly out of character, half-way in, a bass-line inspired by the old soul classic “I Will Follow Him” (made famous by Little Peggy March) arrives, bringing with it Cripple Crow‘s second foray into doo-wop while dropping the eyebrow-raising lines “I see so many…little boys I want to marry,” perhaps intentionally ensuring that the album will never be played publicly in certain corporate chains. The album’s closing number, “Woman,” a solo affair quietly played out on the piano and feeling almost elegiac in tone, brings things to a halt like an eloquent after-thought, a romantic full-stop on an album that sounds like the recording process was one to remember.
With any change in sound, for every new listener won over, there will inevitably be a string of nay-sayers among the artist’s die-hard contingent. There will also be those that will find a way to take exception with the overtly hippie undertones, but any such cry of “selling out” here is assuredly misplaced. As a fan of his earlier work, to these ears, Cripple Crow – with highlights aplenty – marks a welcome change in Banhart’s sound. There were moments on his previous two albums where the songs were just calling out to have a band behind them, and as if to over-compensate for that hindrance, not only has Banhart formed the Hairy Fairies, but the arrangements for the twenty-two tracks are as assorted as the album’s Sgt. Pepper’s-esque cover. Cripple Crow sees Banhart avoiding the risk of letting such creativity grow stale by refusing to limit himself to one single sound, reinvigorating his unique and inventive song-writing in the process. Let’s hope the rumours that the Venezuela-raised hipster is considering a retirement from making albums are unfounded, and that he keeps his impressive productivity levels up until he’s a grey haired nomad with a hundred eccentric gems in his back-catalogue…after all, he’s only just begun to make us dance.
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(Also contains recent live reviews of Devendra Banhart)