All eyes came to rest on a shadowy figure hunched over a classical guitar. Slowly, the spotlights came up to illuminate a solitary Devendra Banhart. Without shaking the hair from his eyes, he flexed his fingers and launched into "Quedate Luna."
This was the Devendra Banhart we'd grown accustomed to over the past three years. Just Devendra, his guitar, and his quavering voice. His fourth album, Cripple Crow, begins with a similar sparseness. The finger-style arpeggiations and empty-room reverb of its first two tracks certainly recall his acclaimed, breakthrough second album, 2004's Rejoicing in the Hands.
But by the time "Long Haired Child" comes strutting out of the speakers, it's
clear things have changed. Wait a second… "strutting"!? Surprisingly enough,
yes; this is no longer your mother's folk music. Not the radical sea-change it
might first seem; more an artistic evolution. Songs such as "Fall," off Rejoicing
in the Hands, and "Be Kind," off 2004's Niño Rojo, demonstrated
Banhart's ability to deliver an electrified groove reminiscent late-'60s rock.
Think the energy of Jefferson Airplane, the mystic sex appeal of The Doors, and
the over-the-top vocals of Janis Joplin.
On Cripple Crow we witness the natural evolution of Banhart's artistry. Notably, of the 22 tracks, about half are uptempo, danceworthy. His experimentation extends from the sitar-laced psychedelia of "Lazy Butterfly" to the straight-out-of-Motown finale of "Little Boys." One of the more lighthearted sections on the album is "How's About Tellin' a Story." A Fahey-esque guitar line and some background laughter lead into a lament about songwriting, namely an inability to write "normal" songs. "Well how's about tellin' a story/ One that's really about somebody…," he sings. "By the time I found a name I moved on to another game/ Called write a song toes and spines. God damn./ Now I can't think of any story lines…" Framed only by guitar and voice, the self-aware lyrics transform the song into a brilliant audience aside. The artist looks straight into the camera and forsakes his world for a moment to establish a more direct line of communication. He says, "You know, I can see through my façade just like you." Conspiratorial and confessional, it draws the listener in.
The song ends with a mumbled background, moving right into the next one. We hear studio shatter. Clinking glasses. Then Banhart gathers himself back into character, delivering the first lines of "Chinese Children" almost as if he's pleased to have remembered them: "If I lived in China/ I'd have some Chinese children…" Seemingly, the band isn't even ready yet, but that doesn't stop him. It makes for a fascinating intro. Once he's reassured himself that yes, he is singing the right song, the band kicks in. A veritable stomp ensues, featuring electric guitar, tambourine, bass, drums, and psychedelic backing vocals. There's even a bluesy guitar solo. This is fun!
It's not only the shift in style that sets Cripple Crow apart from its predecessors. The contributions of the supporting cast are more prominent. The arrangements are lush and fully formed. Then too, Banhart has taken advantage of the higher fidelity Bearsville Studios allowed, yet somehow managed to preserve that otherworldly charm of his lower-fi earlier recordings. Whether it's due to the backing band, or the better studio resources, Banhart seems more self-assured than ever as he sings his songs on Cripple Crow.
Lyrically, he tackles themes common to those of his canon: elemental imagery, from the moon in "Quedate Luna" to a veritable menagerie in "Hey Mama Wolf," "Queen Bee," and "Dragonflies." Childhood and its associated innocence also make a strong showing. Indeed, the womb itself crops up in numerous songs. Consider "I Feel Just Like a Child": "I feel just like a child/ From my womb to my tomb/ I guess I'll always be a child." Or "Long Haired Child": "When my baby slips out my mama's womb/ We're gonna enter a new life/ Enter a new life, that's for sure/ You're gonna enter your self back through your baby's front door." References like this help extend the Peter Pan mythology of idealized childhood all the way back to pre-birth. But even Devendra Banhart realizes that being born into the world necessitates a complete life cycle; we can't remain in childhood. This very lyric tension is part of what makes his music so intriguing; writing with childish whimsy is, in some ways, more powerful a statement than an outright lament for lost innocence.
As my friend Dan and I made our way out of the theatre following Banhart's performance, Dan said, "That rocked more than I expected." To be sure, that is a perfect encapsulation of Cripple Crow.