Devendra Banhart once said that the 22 tracks on his previous album, Cripple Crow, might be too much, but “you’ll get your money’s worth,” he said. Still, for his next album, he will stick to 14 or 15 tracks. “Short and sweet, man,” he said.He stuck to 15 tracks on his latest, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, but in many ways the record is still too long, the discrepancy between the good and the bad too wide and overall sound too inconsistent. That is not to say that there aren’t some remarkable songs that make the CD worth it.
The faults lie in songs like “Lover,” “Shabop Shalom” and “Saved,” which are all well-crafted throwbacks to the soul pop of the ’50s and ’60s that were clearly drawn from separate influences, keeping the album’s sound somewhat modern.
All tracks contain Devendra’s trademark cutesy lyrics — the most memorable is from “Shabop Shalom:” “Whenever I’m in a foul mood/ I have to see you in your Talmud.” But they all seem like impersonal imitations, sticking to conventional chord progressions and rhythms.
Though it is not the best song of the record, “Tonada Yanomaminista” may be the most noteworthy of the album in the fact that it achieves Devendra’s goal of nodding to the past while still sounding fresh.
The song has a modern feel with its synthscape intro, and though the guitar tones are ’70s garage rock, their melodic language is certainly modern.
“Tonada” also never stays within a single idiom — it has a ’60s garage rock chorus and a descending post-punk bass line during the breakdown — which is why it stands above a song like “Shabop Shalom,” that could — give or take a few details — actually be found on an record from the ’50s.
Banhart’s mystical lyricism is unique and refreshing at best, but sometimes the supernatural seems to act as a crutch. He is at his most potent singing from the perspective of the opposite sex.
“Bad Girl,” “I Remember” and “The Other Woman” — which meditates on the exclusion of an adulteress: “I walk with my head down / I mumble all the words / I keep my feelings to myself only” — all rank among the most personal and memorable songs of the record.
“I Remember” and “Rosa,” both slow piano ballads, display Banhart’s remarkable songwriting talent and stand out on the album. Either song could appear on year-end Best Song lists, but the true gem of the album is its closer, “My Dearest Friend.” A mere two minutes and 33 seconds long, it carries the emotional weight of a song three times its length.
One of the greatest improvements over Cripple Crow is Smokey’s modern studio production with voices switching between right and left stereo on “Rosa,” and the great feedback pause of “The Other Woman.”
The other two big improvements are Jonny Greenwood-style orchestral arrangements (“Freely,” “Seaside,” “My Dearest Friend”) and unique instrumental additions, like the hushed strumming of a mandolin on “Rosa.” On Smokey, the subtly beautiful percussion rhythms and sounds of Cripple Crow are expanded upon and become one of the best aspects of the disc.
With a reemergence of retro-minded indie bands (Cold War Kids, the Strokes, Interpol, the White Stripes.), those that rise above just being imitators and balance old and new clearly distinguish themselves from the rest.
With Cripple Crow, Banhart risked falling into the former categorization but with Smokey, he firmly plants his feet in the latter. Cripple Crow was Banhart’s breakthrough into indie culture and Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon will ingrain his position into the indie elite, but Banhart needs to tighten up the loose bolts if he wants to validate his remarkable talent.