DEVENDRA BANHART, "NINO ROJO"
a joyful, magical work of unrestrained creativity
Just as Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Empress represented the maternal principle, Nino Rojo represents the principle of the child. Following in a line of primal symbolism going back to the Egyptian deity Horus ("the crowned and conquering child"), the title depends upon that fundamental consonance between Sun and Son. The "red sun" disc of the Eye of Horus, casting the light of knowledge upon mankind; and the "red son" of Banhart's title, an "exuberant and foolish" child full of passion and curiosity. This symbolic conceit works to unite these two halves of the same generative source. Nino Rojo comprises a second volume of 16 songs from the same fruitful recording sessions that produced Rejoicing, and far from a collection of outtakes or castoffs, represents another stunning album from one of the most uniquely talented individuals currently working in this medium. As if to enforce the frolicsome exuberance suggested by the album's title, the songs here focus on energy, dynamism and the spirit of communal play. To that end, many of these tracks are more orchestrated than I'd come to expect from past albums, with guest players contributing voices and instruments. Benefactor M. Gira contributes his voice and harmonica to "Electric Heart," the album's transcendent coda, celebrating the light-bringing, conductive properties of collective love. On a few tracks tracks, Julia Kent of Rasputina and Antony and the Johnsons contributes her exquisitely expressive cello. Andy Cabic from Vetiver, one of the newer groups to emerge from the Golden Apples of the Sun new-folk scene, joins Devendra for a lovely vocal duet on "At the Hop," a buoyant tribute to romantic codependency. The disc is also enhanced with an MPEG video for the song, which mutates into a group sing-along, with a psychedelicized video heavily indebted to the hippie ruralism and communal spirit of Incredible String Band's Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending. Of course, Nino Rojo also contains plenty of tracks of Banhart playing solo, fingerpicking remarkably complex guitar figures, drawing on a seemingly endless reservoir of gentle acoustic melodies that each trigger the spooky resonance of deja vu. The album begins with a sad, sweet rendition of children's songwriter Ella Jenkins' "Wake Up, Little Sparrow." Banhart sings in his native Spanish on "Ay Mama," a lament for his mother in which he repeatedly sings "No hay que llorar" ("You don't have to cry"). There are more hauntingly simple songs on Nino Rojo, from the outsider anthem of "Noah" to the chilling surrealism of "Sister." Along with the remarkably fast-tempo playing on "Horseheadedfleshwizard," Devendra weaves a remarkably sinister assemblage of images: "I put the ovaries in my mouth/And all the dogs will die/And the devil will call the cats home/And he looks up to the sky." Banhart's guitar virtuosity continues to improve by leaps and bounds, with tracks like "The Good Red Road" matching the proficiency of guitar legends like Elizabeth Cotten and John Fahey. Nino Rojo is a joyful, magical work of unrestrained creativity, and taken together with its earlier counterpart, represents as strong a statement of artistic integrity as any musician could hope to produce.