Devendra Banhart: Niño Rojo

Stop Smiling | by Dustin Drase

This is elegant music for time spent with the windows wide open on a cool, fall afternoon.

While the current crop of young artists is copping their looks and musical chops from late 70s and early 80s post-punk, there are still a few holdouts that subscribe to a different era and agenda. And so, we enter the bohemian revelry of the freak-folkies; a rag tag group of nouveau earthen-flower children with throwbacks to unknown and underappreciated singers like Vashti Bunyan, and Linda Perhacs. Like a bearded pied-piper, Devendra Banhart champions overlooked musicians of the past, while wholeheartedly embracing a new regime of like-minded individuals, including Joanna Newsom, Espers, Vetiver, Josephine Foster, and CocoRosie (Nino Rojo’s "Be Kind" is dedicated CocoRosie’s Bianca Casady.)

Musically, Banhart is a mesmerizing blend of 60s troubadour-folkies and Greenwich Village cool, his voice lilting majestic over elaborate, finger-picked guitar rhythms. Devendra’s thoughts are both backward and forward-conscious; at the same time, his music is completely timeless. Comparisons have been made to Marc Bolan, Nick Drake, and Donovan, but Devendra’s style is most evidently influenced by the likes of female singers such as Billie Holiday, Karen Dalton and Ella Jenkins; Banhart chose a chilling rendition of Jenkins’ “Wake up little sparrow” as the opening track of Nino Rojo. There is a definite child-like naiveté to the lyrical narrative of Banhart’s music and his accompanying, hand-drawn album art. The inner cover says it best: “Let that hair hang down, let your hair hang down my friend.”

Nino Rojo is Banhart’s second album this year, and is intended not as a follow up, but as an extension of the critically acclaimed Rejoicing In the Hands. The tracks that appear on Nino Rojo were recorded during the same sessions as Rejoicing, and there are plans to later release the albums in tandem as a double LP. In terms of production, both albums mark a huge leap from earlier endeavors, most of which were recorded on answering machines, voice mail, and random tape recorders. Many claim that the difference between Rejoicing and Rojo is that the Rojo tracks feature more instrumentation than those chosen for Rejoicing. On “We all Know,” a horn section comes in out of nowhere, with huge, marching-band cymbals crashing, evoking visions of Sgt. Pepper-clad monkeys following closely behind.

In any case, Nino Rojo is not a collection of B-sides and out takes left over from Rejoicing. The songs on Rojo take much longer to fully integrate into your consciousness. This is elegant music for time spent with the windows wide open on a cool, fall afternoon.

Sometimes critical praise is justified. Banhart’s musical personality has only gotten stronger since we were first introduced to a barely 21-year old vagabond just a few short years ago. Banhart’s music and life are changing, both mentally and spiritually. Isn’t it time you started to pay attention?