Devendra Banhart, Nino Rojo

Nude as the News | by Jeff Gray

It's warm and familiar and not without a certain accessible wisdom

A couple of years ago, my roommate gave me a copy of Iron and Wine's The Creek Drank The Cradle. He liked it, so I tried to like it too, but I never made it through an entire listen. These days, when one of the songs comes up on my iTunes shuffle, I don't even make it to the end of a single track. It's an album based on a formula I should like -- acoustic guitar, quirky lyrics, soft harmonies -- but it's plain dull. Sure, there's some nice finger-picking, but every time they sing, all sickly and distant, they sap all the energy and life and possibility out of the mix. Just listening to it now as I write this has made me want to get up and go outside for some fresh air.

Phew. I'm back to the keyboard. Like the Iron and Wine that leaves me so cold, Devendra Banhart's songs are hushed-volume, simply orchestrated folk tunes, but where Iron and Wine is wallowing its own lifelessness, Banhart is jumping with life and possibility. His voice is powerful without rising above the noise level of a hum, and it's evocative even if it's uttering sheer nonsense. On 2004's Nino Rojo, it manages to jump from childlike psychedelia to Dixie swings to low growls with perfect ease, making it hard to imagine a voice better designed to accompany an acoustic guitar, especially this guitar. Banhart's playing doesn't aspire to virtuoso level, but it's deadly effective, gracefully running off blues and folk progressions. At its most striking, like on "Owl Eyes," it invokes something very old, but Nino Rojo is not an artifact begging to remain undisturbed. It's warm and familiar and not without a certain accessible wisdom.

Nino Rojo is the second album produced from the single recording session that also gave birth to Rejoicing In The Hands, released a handful of months earlier. The two records are effectively a single document. Nino Rojo's arrangement may be a bit more complex -- it's got the occasional keyboard and percussion -- but both albums are one-man shows, simple to the extreme.

At times ("Little Yellow Spider"), Banhart seems to be singing to children, full of wide-eyed references to animals and built on a fairy-tale structure. From "Hey there, Mrs. Lovely Moon, you're lonely and you're blue / It's kinda strange the way you change but then we all do, too," it goes on to "Hey there, Mr. Morning Sun," and "Hey there, Snapping Turtle", etc. "Little Yellow Spider" is a song that makes you stop what you're doing and listen, though, and that makes it more than children's music: it's music to make you feel small in the great big wondrous world.

Nino Rojo's tracks aren't all successful. A few of them, notably "Horseheadedfleshwizard," lack the charm and emotional power of most of the album and are merely weird, while "Electric Heart" isn't weird enough to be interesting. For the most part, though, Banhart's created an album of tiny masterpieces, songs that, if you notice them at all, you can't help but remember. Still, it's difficult to describe in any specific or tangible terms what separates Banhart from Iron and Wine, though perhaps they're not quantitatively different. Perhaps the difference is simply that Nino Rojo was made by a Texan with an Indian name who was raised in a Caracas slum, and that it's got that indescribable something that can make the line "I wanna live in Jamaica blah blah blah blah blah blah" seem meaningful and important.