Devendra Banhart: Nino Rojo

The Yale Herald | by Rachel Khong

Devendra at his story-telling best

Maybe it's just me, but something about 23-year-old psych-folk artist Devendra Banhart just screams "campfires," especially the part about friends telling life stories in sleeping bags.

With Banhart, the stories are frequently breathtaking—tales backdropped by acoustic guitars, sung by a voice that sounds like a cross between a pirate and some gung-ho gospel singer. The influences are hard to pinpoint. Marc Bolan? Captain Beefheart? His newest album, Niño Rojo, which comes after Rejoicing in the Hands from earlier this year, opens with "Wake Up, Little Sparrow," giving nods to Ella Jenkins.

Resonating closely with Rejoicing in the Hands while stepping it up a notch, Banhart's fourth effort surprises in the best of ways. Niño Rojo is, at times, a charismatic Kumbaya; at others, it's a sustained lullabye straddling the whimsical and the poignant. Mostly, though, it's Devendra at his story-telling best, singing about happy squids "moving psychedelically"—the nonsensical stuff of acid-tripped fairy tales, maybe, but gorgeous, and oddly meaningful still.

When Banhart sings about coming across a dancing crab in "Little Yellow Spider," he asks the crab to "dance for him just one more time/Before you hibernate and you come out a crab cake!" On the thinly veiled pop song "At the Hop," he sings, "Cook me in your breakfast/Put me on your plate/'Cause you know I taste great." It might be crazy, but somehow, coming from Banhart, it all makes perfect sense. While words like "timeless" don't usually apply to San Franciscans who might pass for good-looking bums, they do in the case of Banhart, who's never sounded so wonderfully anachronistic. If these aren't campfire songs, they might just as well be smoking-cigars-in-rocking-chairs-fifty-years-ago songs, or back-stroking-naked songs. Frankly, it doesn't matter. When Devendra Banhart's telling stories, the best idea is to listen.