Devendra Banhart, Niño Rojo
Dusted Magazine | by Nathan Hogan
Banhart drapes his creations in new instrumental colorSince the release of Oh Me Oh My, his lively 4-track debut, Devendra Banhart has risen to prominence as the charismatic leader of a new generation of barely-underground out-folkies. The wide-eyed and generous qualities so appealing in Banhartâ€™s music have also manifested themselves in his attention to peers â€“ he regularly hurries through his sets to accommodate musicians he seems genuinely awed by (Michael Gira, Joanna Newsom, Xiu Xiu, and Vetiverâ€™s Andy Cabic to name a few). Earlier this year Banhart wielded his influence to shine attention on a slew of talented but mostly lesser-known contemporaries with his Golden Apples Of The Sun compilation. On NiÃ±o Rojo, his third full-length, Banhart puts his inclusive disposition to solo advantage; with a liberal helping of instrumental and vocal support, Banhartâ€™s songs find life at their edges.
The material on NiÃ±o Rojo represents a portion of the recordings completed for Rejoicing In The Hands. (Banhartâ€™s brimming debut was hardly a fluke, and the 30-odd songs recorded last year for Lynn Bridges put Young God in the enviable position of needing two releases to get everything out.) Therefore, itâ€™s chronologically inaccurate to call NiÃ±o Rojo an â€œevolution,â€ but one hopes that the more robust instrumental arrangements didnâ€™t end up on the latter record by chance. As unique a talent as Banhart is, his songs threaten to become increasingly indistinguishable (and uninteresting) as he leans on his handful of vocal tics and simple chord progressions. In fact, 16- and 18-song releases leave him particularly prone to recycling his quirks. However, as Banhart has begun toning down his vocal acrobatics on NiÃ±o Rojo and Rejoicing In The Hands, his songs have grown paradoxically richer and more emotionally wide-ranging. This is particularly true on NiÃ±o Rojo, where brass, piano and strings augment the through-the-looking-glass environs of his playful imagination.
NiÃ±o Rojo begins with a blues-infused reading of â€œLittle Sparrow,â€ an Ella Jenkins ditty. Stock comparisons to \"Old Weird America\" totems and British Isle folk figures seem strained in Banhartâ€™s instance - the simple arrangements and participatory spirit of Jenkinsâ€™ music feel much closer to his musical lineage. â€œAy Mamaâ€ demonstrates the first hint of brass â€“ a solemn mariachi trumpet floats behind Banhartâ€™s vibrato, and you find yourself wondering what a messy marriage his surrealist folk and an Elephant 6 marching band arrangement might spawn. â€œWe All Knowâ€ expounds on the possibility â€“ Banhart assumes the Grand Marshall role, zig-zagging his way through a crashing chorus of horns and garbage can lid-percussion. So much of the critical response to Banhart (including mine) has focused on his eccentric vibrato as a unique instrument, so itâ€™s natural to wonder how such an instrument might interact with non-guitar sounds. Songs like â€œAy Mamaâ€ and â€œWe All Knowâ€ hint at those possibilities.
Many tracks on NiÃ±o Rojo capitalize on their arrangements to very different expressive ends. â€œAt The Hopâ€ (my favorite song on the record) was written with Andy Cabic and is most similar to the music the pair record and play as Vetiver. Their harmonizing vocals dance alongside Banhartâ€™s brittle fingerpicking, and a soft blanket of harmonium lends the song a dewy, early morning glow. â€œNoahâ€ makes fine use of mournful upper-octave piano, cello and an elfin chorus of whistling backing as Banhart chants his way through a lament thatâ€™s about as melancholy as he gets (â€œNot everyone can relate / To what you and I appreciateâ€). â€œBe Kindâ€ is a shambling Microphones-style pop symphony with a doo-wop percussive punch and â€œThe Good Red Roadâ€ stacks folk arpeggios into a shaky tower of song that all unravels on the tinny, swooning closer, â€œElectric Heart.â€
If Oh Me Oh My is Banhartâ€™s most fantastic record and Rejoicing In The Hands his most focused, NiÃ±o Rojo is the singer at his most inclusive. Without sacrificing his associative twists and imaginary turns, Banhart drapes his creations in new instrumental color. Of his records to date, itâ€™s the one I anticipate returning to most often.