Devendra Banhart, Niño Rojo
Splendid | by Jennifer Kelly
One of our best and most eccentric songwritersRecorded during the same sessions as this year's Rejoicing in the Hands, Devendra Banhart's third full-length album cements his reputation was one of our best and most eccentric songwriters. His most whimsical and extroverted album to date, Niño Rojo is written from the perspective of the sun's playful young son. This younger, more outgoing personality is expressed in a variety of ways -- through more rhythmic ensemble instrumentals, childlike imagery and a warmer, friendlier feeling. There are still powerfully eerie moments -- "HorsefleshheadedWizard"'s keening vocals are one -- but overall, the album is more centered and collaborative and celebratory than anything Banhart has done before.
It opens with a cover of "Wake Up, Little Sparrow" by Ella Jenkins, a songwriter best known for her children's records and an early influence for Banhart. It and "Aye Mama", which follows, are more of a piece with the sweet, mystical Rejoicing in the Hands, with their lacy folk-blues guitar riffs and swooping, otherworldly vocals. The album takes a sunnier turn with "We All Know", showing for the first time the kinetic swing that distinguishes the disc. It's not the kind of beat that makes you get up and dance, but there's an undefinable sway here that moves heart, mind and body, albeit gently. "At the Hop", the sole track co-written with Andy Cabic of Vetiver, continues in this vein, evoking a mellow, campfire-style party where everyone is high but no one is drunk, everyone is happy but no one out of control. However, the best of these new, more physically moving songs is "Be Kind". Structurally, it couldn't be simpler -- there's basically one melody, one set of piano chords, one very fundamental rhythm, yet it swings and sways and takes on a shuffling, endearing life. "The Good Red Road" has the same kind of slurred and sexy feel; there's no making sense of lyrics like this -- "I'm in love with an anchor / I can floss with her tail / she's the island above me / and I can tell, I can tell" -- but the feeling, sliding off to Jamaica and having a bunch of barefoot children, is unmistakeable.
Lyrically, Banhart continues to thread a difficult needle, writing songs that are simple without being sappy, surreal without being weird or offputting. "Little Yellow Spider" has, perhaps, the most memorable words, jauntily skipping from a snowbound spider to a dancing crab to a sexy pig that's "mated with a man / and now you've got a little kid with hooves instead of hands." In each case, Banhart captures non-judgmental, childlike wonder, acknowledging the animals' world without pretending to understand it. His metaphors, if that's what they are, are skewed but natural, widening the frame of reference without explicitly explaining it. For instance, "Your eyelash was an island" doesn't mean anything on its surface, yet it brings the sexual charge of eye contact into the warmth and sensuality of island life. The references are oblique and almost random, yet they reverberate and take on meaning as you listen.
If you're going to buy one Devendra Banhart album, I'd still recommend the almost perfect Rejoicing in the Hands. But why would anyone want to limit themselves to just one? Devendra Banhart is one of the most important musical artists working today -- and Niño Rojo is further proof of his greatness.