Banhart hones his songwriting with 'Rojo'

Michigan Daily | by Evan MacKinder

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Devendra Banhart’s records have always acted as a soundtrack to the beauty of nature. His first release of 2004, the enigmatic, free-folk cornerstone Rejoicing in the Hands carried song titles like “Tit Smoking in the Temple of Artesan Mimicry,” and introduced themes of naturalism and modernity into Banhart’s canon. “Ticks Eat the Olives,” the opening track to Banhart’s first record Oh Me Oh My, introduced the singer/songwriter to the underground folk scene with a swirling, lyrically abstract song about tear-spawned olives that are devoured by ticks, which originate in the back of the human head.

Banhart’s third release, Nino Rojo, continues his obtuse lyricism — which has catapulted Banhart to the peak of today’s folk scene — yet is, in many ways, unique from its predecessors. His trademarked lyrics are now juxtaposed with a welcomed shadow of instrumentaion which was introduced with his folk stylings.

“Wake Up Little Sparrow” introduces Rojo as a record rooted in typical folk fashion with its sole finger-picked guitar. The album quickly builds from there as Banhart incorporates horns to play a backdrop in tracks like “Ay Mama” and “We All Know.”

Banhart’s strongest quality is his innate ear for songcraft and songwriting, displayed prominently throughout Rojo. Banhart uses a hybridization between folk simplicity and lo-fi instrumentation, as strings, harmonicas, pianos and banjos are all prominently showcased, often overshadowing Banhart’s guitar. “Little Yellow Spider” is a whimsical ballad showcasing Banhart’s naturalistic imagery, and lyrical prowess: “Little yellow spider laughing at the snow / Maybe that spider knows something I don’t know / ‘cause I’m godamned cold”

Rojo also stay’s true to a simple folk music’s form. “My Ships” and “A Ribbon” which stay true to its straightforwardness, translating to the listener the sense of independence each track is given by Banhart.

While Niño Rojo is not necessarily Banhart’s best album, its a continuation of his eccentric songwriting, and is a progression of his abilities to craft songs instrumentally. It builds upon the talents introduced by Oh My Oh My and this year’s Rejoicing in the Hands while leaving room for improvement like its predecessors.