Devendra Banhart, Niño Rojo

Dusted Magazine | by Nathan Hogan

Banhart drapes his creations in new instrumental color

Since the release of Oh Me Oh My, his lively 4-track debut, Devendra Banhart has risen to prominence as the charismatic leader of a new generation of barely-underground out-folkies. The wide-eyed and generous qualities so appealing in Banhart’s music have also manifested themselves in his attention to peers – he regularly hurries through his sets to accommodate musicians he seems genuinely awed by (Michael Gira, Joanna Newsom, Xiu Xiu, and Vetiver’s Andy Cabic to name a few). Earlier this year Banhart wielded his influence to shine attention on a slew of talented but mostly lesser-known contemporaries with his Golden Apples Of The Sun compilation. On Niño Rojo, his third full-length, Banhart puts his inclusive disposition to solo advantage; with a liberal helping of instrumental and vocal support, Banhart’s songs find life at their edges.

The material on Niño Rojo represents a portion of the recordings completed for Rejoicing In The Hands. (Banhart’s brimming debut was hardly a fluke, and the 30-odd songs recorded last year for Lynn Bridges put Young God in the enviable position of needing two releases to get everything out.) Therefore, it’s chronologically inaccurate to call Niño Rojo an “evolution,” but one hopes that the more robust instrumental arrangements didn’t end up on the latter record by chance. As unique a talent as Banhart is, his songs threaten to become increasingly indistinguishable (and uninteresting) as he leans on his handful of vocal tics and simple chord progressions. In fact, 16- and 18-song releases leave him particularly prone to recycling his quirks. However, as Banhart has begun toning down his vocal acrobatics on Niño Rojo and Rejoicing In The Hands, his songs have grown paradoxically richer and more emotionally wide-ranging. This is particularly true on Niño Rojo, where brass, piano and strings augment the through-the-looking-glass environs of his playful imagination.

Niño Rojo begins with a blues-infused reading of “Little Sparrow,” an Ella Jenkins ditty. Stock comparisons to \"Old Weird America\" totems and British Isle folk figures seem strained in Banhart’s instance - the simple arrangements and participatory spirit of Jenkins’ music feel much closer to his musical lineage. “Ay Mama” demonstrates the first hint of brass – a solemn mariachi trumpet floats behind Banhart’s vibrato, and you find yourself wondering what a messy marriage his surrealist folk and an Elephant 6 marching band arrangement might spawn. “We All Know” expounds on the possibility – Banhart assumes the Grand Marshall role, zig-zagging his way through a crashing chorus of horns and garbage can lid-percussion. So much of the critical response to Banhart (including mine) has focused on his eccentric vibrato as a unique instrument, so it’s natural to wonder how such an instrument might interact with non-guitar sounds. Songs like “Ay Mama” and “We All Know” hint at those possibilities.

Many tracks on Niño Rojo capitalize on their arrangements to very different expressive ends. “At The Hop” (my favorite song on the record) was written with Andy Cabic and is most similar to the music the pair record and play as Vetiver. Their harmonizing vocals dance alongside Banhart’s brittle fingerpicking, and a soft blanket of harmonium lends the song a dewy, early morning glow. “Noah” makes fine use of mournful upper-octave piano, cello and an elfin chorus of whistling backing as Banhart chants his way through a lament that’s about as melancholy as he gets (“Not everyone can relate / To what you and I appreciate”). “Be Kind” is a shambling Microphones-style pop symphony with a doo-wop percussive punch and “The Good Red Road” stacks folk arpeggios into a shaky tower of song that all unravels on the tinny, swooning closer, “Electric Heart.”

If Oh Me Oh My is Banhart’s most fantastic record and Rejoicing In The Hands his most focused, Niño Rojo is the singer at his most inclusive. Without sacrificing his associative twists and imaginary turns, Banhart drapes his creations in new instrumental color. Of his records to date, it’s the one I anticipate returning to most often.