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Instant Expert: Devendra Banhart

Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageIn our Instant Expert column, CC2k Music Editor Jimmy Hitt gives you a crash course on a unique, up-and-coming or otherwise extraordinary artist.

This week's rocker to get the Instant Expert treatment is freak-folk maestro Devendra Banhart.

Read on, and wow all your friends at cocktail parties, laugh-ins, sleepovers and campouts with your comprehensive knowledge of a lesser-known artist!

Who: Born in Texas but raised in Venezuela, the 26-year-old Banhart eventually settled in San Francisco where he attended art school and, presumably, grew a beard.  Naturally, with a name like Devendra, one tends to gravitate towards such careers as hobo, musician, painter, poet, or perhaps all of them combined.  That would seem to be the case with Banhart, who helms the loosely constructed indie rock genre known as "freak-folk."

What: Freak-folk, which is more or less a fancy name for roots rock mixed with some singer-songwriter stuff, mixed with straight folk, features Banhart as its shining star but is also populated by lesser known acts like Vetiver, Joanne Newsom and Grizzly Bear.  Oh, but if you are ever lucky enough to hang out with said artists or tend to chillax with any mega-hipsters, make sure to call the genre Naturalismo, because that’s supposedly even hipper than freak-folk, a tag the artists themselves shrugged off after a short time. 

It’s been said that having a beard and living an itinerant lifestyle makes you into a freak folkster, but if that’s the case then every folk artist who ever lived could be considered a freak folk artist.  So, even though the anti-establishment establishment of indie rock critics will tell you Banhart is a freak folk artist, he’s not all that freaky.  Just listen to the breakdown in “Seahorse” off of his new album, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, for a brief intro to most of his styles, including the Neil Young-esque guitar solo:

Where: Getting back to that whole “itinerant musician” thing, Banhart gets around like crazy, which means he basically resides somewhere in California most of the time, presumably near The Bay but maybe L.A.  I mean, does sleeping on someone’s couch necessarily make you a resident? 

Why: Newcomers to all that is Devendra will immediately notice a melding of sorts between traditional Tropicalia rock n roll–including Spanish language tunes galore–and more mainstream indie rock eccentricities.  So, in essence, Banhart’s music attempts to bring Tropicalia-tinged tunes into the mainstream while never really playing by the rules.  Take a look at Cripple Crow’s playlist, for instance.  There’s something like 22 tracks on the thing, at least 3 of which are mere mood pieces (“The Beatles”), 5 or 6 of which are Devendra acoustic, and the rest, constituting a proper album if Devendra were proper, represents straight-up rock tunes with a full band.  “Long Haired Child” sounds like it could have been released in 1969 and performed at Woodstock with 7 minute jams near the bridge, but instead it’s just another great song amidst a sea of varying, schizophrenic rock n roll and folk tunes.  Maybe that’s what makes him a freak-folker, or maybe it’s just that he needs an editor.   

When: Banhart started splashing in the indie cesspool in the early 2000’s, and he’s only released 4 or 5 proper albums, depending on how you look at Nino Rojo and Rejoicing in the Hands.  I tend to see them as being one big double album, but that’s just me.  You could also get away with skipping Oh Me Oh My in the beginning, because it really is pretty freaky stuff that at this point is for completists only.  Either way, he is still in the midst of his early career, so there’s plenty of time to get with the program.  The aforementioned Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon leaked a few weeks back to various filesharing programs. 

How: Devendra’s compositions aren’t too complex.  He and his backing band (currently called Spiritual Bonerz or Brain Taint, depending on your source–but they change their name every few weeks, so don’t get attached) don’t roll with any instruments that are too obscure, so if you like guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, etc., you’re on the right track.  But the greatest instrument Banhart employs is his voice.  It’s a warbling falsetto that sounds like it could crack or break at any moment, yet manages to float amazingly over everything else on his tracks and is really what sets him apart from any other musician you’ll ever hear. 

Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is set to be released September 25 in the U.S. of A. on XL Recordings. You can get more information on Banhart at his MySpace page:

Author: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer

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