Beauty in a Corn Silk Mermaid
Popmatters | by Jason Thompson
Devendra Banhart, Niño RojoI'd like to preface this review by saying that I don't get people who don't get Devendra Banhart. The man now has three exquisite albums and one EP under his belt (along with an album by group Vetiver), and for the most part all I still see are reviews by reviewers who can't seem to grasp what is going on in Banhart's world. They seem a little put off all the time by the whole sound, and usually just wind up spewing the same old facts. You know 'em by now if you're a fan, so say them along with me. 1. Devendra Banhart is a worldly guy and recorded tons of songs on various lo-fi machines, including an answering machine. 2. Michael Gira ex-Swans hears Banhart and decides to put him on his Young God label and release the recordings as-is. 3. People can't figure the dude out.
What's there to figure out? Banhart writes beautiful acoustic-based semi-folk/partially-psychedelic tunes that cannot be pegged into the usual "sounds like" categories. Perhaps this is where people get frustrated. They are so used to being able to compare and contrast apples and oranges that when such an original talent like Banhart comes along, they're at a complete loss. Go figure. But the "point" of experiencing Devendra's music is simply that. Experience it. Why bother analyzing it and then taking those presumptions and trying to figure out the guy behind the guitar? It's pointless. This is art. Let art be.
So yes, this new disc, Nino Rojo is Banhart's second of the year. The earlier, Rejoicing in the Hands found Devendra stepping up just a tiny bit in terms of "sound quality" for those who care about such things and eschewing a tiny fraction of the audio verite that landed him his record deal in the first place. It was a stunning album, and easily built upon the joys of his debut, Oh Me Oh My.... Nino Rojo, on the other hand, pretty much mixes the previous two albums' sound into its own dimension of audio clarity, thus making it a separate and new thing unto its own likeness.
To me, Banhart's music sounds like it has always been coming through a megaphone of the past, yet situated brilliantly in the present, and skipping past all that garbage that has to do with the '60s. Like if Jelly Roll Morton took a bath in Elvis' tub and then scrubbed off with Jandek's wash cloth, then dried himself under the New England sun while burning down Bob Newhart's sitcom inn and thumbing his nose at the bullshit that was Donovan. Old ragtime blasts competing with trickling guitar working it over with creepy stringed instruments. And at the center of it, Banhart's voice pushing through an always-wintry day singing of animal friends and skin and eyes and teeth.
But it's simply not good enough to just sit here and write this and say "go out and listen". Everyone should do that, anyway. Banhart may very well be specifically for those who understand on the very first listen. Songs like "We All Know" and "Little Yellow Spider" here are the soundtrack to an afternoon's nap possibly brought on by an afternoon drink. The pictures Devendra invokes in the listener's mind are always near-disturbing, but so completely childlike and innocent, it really does bring to mind thoughts of children making up songs as they will during play, and singing whatever silly stories come to mind and just reveling in that. Kids don't care what the grownups think when they are in their world of playtime. So why should Banhart care when the notes flutter from his strings and his voice carries the whimsical tales of crabs and friends, often punctuated with his favorite curse, "goddamn"? He shouldn't. And neither should those who are always trying to seek the deeper meanings.
On "My Ships", he sings, "My fists are plastic dice, oh the shape of the sun" and delivers it so nonchalantly that it hits you like a revelation. And indeed, this music of Banhart's could easily be a new strain of gospel, a new word from On High. But I doubt Devendra fancies himself any sort of prophet, and in the end this is all just good fun and great songs. That someone can be so prolific and at the same time move forward without becoming alienating due to unneeded change is a thrill. This music is electric in emotional nature. It is the stuff of the subconscious and the half-remembered dream from two nights back. It is a microwave burrito served on a silver platter and pure grain alcohol trumping the pomposity of Cristal. "HorseheadedfleshWizard" and "Noah" are the worries of Andy Williams back in the day and the utter horror of Carson Daly in the now.
But it all makes sense in the end. Nino Rojo is, in a nutshell, another chapter in the Devendra Banhart story that will undoubtedly make way for the next installment which will leave most folks trying to break it all down instead of simply just allowing themselves to be seduced by it. The best thing about the man, though, is that he's even too damn brilliant for the would-be hipsters who would generally love nothing more than to "click" with an artist like Banhart. But thankfully his music, art, and world do not give themselves over to such clichés. Banhart, like Jandek, is undoubtedly one of the few truly original and captivating popular musical artists in the States these days. Amen to him.