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D. Banhart, Nino Rojo

All Music Guide | by Thom Jurek

...the shared delight of new encounters with music and language

As was promised upon the release of Rejoicing in the Hands in the spring of 2004, Niño Rojo is a companion piece. It was assembled from the same recording sessions at Lynn Bridges' Atlanta home that produced 57 tracks. Thirty-two were chosen for the two albums. Some were overdubbed minimally in New York by Young God label boss Michael Gira and Devendra Banhart adding a nip of keyboard or harmonica here, and tucked in horn, backing vocal, or electric guitar there. What these songs showcase is that Banhart is a songwriter of guileless vision. His unaffected aesthetic is etched in the ether of mysterious traditional and psychedelic folk musics from the British Isle and in an America that disappeared the first time in the '30s with the Dust Bowl and for the second time in the grimness of mid-'70s determinism in the shadows of post-Vietnam shame and malaise. Banhart's songs don't hearken back so much as remind us of what we no longer possess as a culture. His songs are spiritual, terminally unhip, with labyrinthine grown-up melodies and the keen unsullied wisdom of children. These 16 songs include the mysterious minor key cipher that is "A Ribbon," with its eerie guitars, a beautifully etched chorus, and an all but hidden keyboard underscoring the quietly insistent vocal. His cover of Ella Jenkins' "Little Sparrow," opens the album; accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, Banhart transfers the song from the universe of its origin as childhood ballad to a bluesy exhortation to spiritual awakening. A slow, easy major chord stroll, "We All Know," with its delightfully ridiculous lyric ("...we belong to the floating hand that was made by animals/we dance so, we let go/we'll remove clothes and we'll trade lobes...."). Seamlessly it shifts and walks the edge of a vaudeville rag that comes complete with accompanying trombones in the chorus at the end. And speaking of rags, there's the nocturnal spiritual guitar blues of "My Ships" that recalls the Rev. Gary Davis illustrating the point that Banhart confines himself to no one terrain, no single point of origin or destination. For Banhart, writing a song is one discovery -- give a listen to "At the Hop" written with Andy Cabic with its bright, canny, gorgeously impure love poetry -- and recording is another. Combining them is yet a third for both performer and listener. Like its companion recording, Niño Rojo is about the shared delight of new encounters with music and language and is an adventure in the hearing.
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