The last time I saw Devendra Banhart play, at a sold-out show in New York City, I wanted to buy him a beer after the gig. A highly caloric beer, or better yet, a fudge milkshake, a fried Mars bar, a lard bisque--anything that might de-emphasize the starving component of his starving-artist look. As he sat cross-legged and shirtless onstage, Banhart's ribs, clavicle, and hip bones jutted out frightfully. Even more disquieting was how his thick black beard and sharky, too-wide grin make him look like another weirdo singer-songwriter, though of course Charles Manson isn't most remembered for his hippy-dippy SoCal folk-rock. By gathering devoted members of what he dubbed "the Family" to circle round and help him sing onstage, Banhart only reinforced that dreaded feeling of Helter Skelter. And even surrounded by such "acquired taste" singers as Joanna Newsom, Antony, and Coco Rosie, the center of attention managed to outyelp them all.
In other words, a little of the slight-of-frame Banhart goes a long way.
And there's been a load of him in the last 18 months, during which period Banhart has released three albums--Rejoicing in the Hands, Niño Rojo, and the new Cripple Crow--and served as the whimsical face of "freak folk." To his credit, he's used his visibility to become a kind of sub-genre ambassador, upping buddies like Andy Cabic (who tours with him and records on his own as Vetiver), even splitting a record with cat-powered singer Jana Hunter, and turning the kids onto forgotten folk figures like Vashti Bunyan, Clive Palmer, and Biff Rose.
Cripple Crow's 22 tracks maddeningly flaunt both Banhart's natural talents and, well, crippling weaknesses. He's a fine guitar player who can flash his finger-picking skills on a whim, as he does on the brief instrumental "Sawkill River." When singing at a soft whisper, he's instantly intimate ("Now That I Know"), minute and fluttering ("Dragonflys"). And his movement toward Spanish-sung/tinged songs feels natural. The album features an expanded instrumental palette, which makes for a headier trip. Strings and piano surround Banhart on "Korean Dogwood," as open and enchanting as the whispering pine itself. "Lazy Butterfly" melds sitar to Banhart's echoing mewls, and hand drums encircle his croon on "When They Come." At other times, Banhart and band scratch out fuzzy tones that evoke the lost sounds of those Brazilian psyche records that keep getting dug out of the dirt.
But while the instrumentation and textures have expanded, Banhart's surrealistic scope has shrunk, to the point that he sounds like he's forcing spontaneity by making up songs in the studio. Consider some of his opening lines: "Life is tough and love is rough"; "Late winter's day, it's cold, and I know for certain when I go outside my head will start hurting"; "If I lived in China, I'd have some Chinese children." On "The Beatles," he ruminates that Paul and Ringo are the only Beatles left, and the slight tune soon turns as noodly and stoned as the White Album outtake, "What's the New Mary Jane?"
Most insipid may be "Heard Somebody Say," where over a lazy piano plink, Banhart addresses the reality of the present with a political doozy: "I heard somebody say that the war ended today/But everybody knows it's going still." Were that not firebrand enough, he follows with a rallying cry (make that murmur): "It's simple, we don't want to kill." It's simplistic perhaps, and one wonders if Banhart's audience is regressing or if he is. Kinda hard to tell on a song called "I Feel Just Like a Child," where elementary rhymes of "womb" and "tomb" go hand in hand with Banhart's listing of childhood foibles and oopsies. Cripple Crow's slew of songs about little furry animals, bugs, and the perils of being a little kid, delivered in sing-song rhythms, show that Banhart isn't the next Charles Manson after all; he's the next Raffi.