The biggest problem with being part of a "scene" is that eventually the outside air no longer gets through. You either begin believing your own hype or your weirdest idiosyncrasies get far too much encouragement. Devendra Banhart, the Texas-to-Venezuela-to-San Francisco pied piper troubadour of the "freaky folk" scene of the 2000s, was already an eclectic weirdo when he first started putting ideas to tape. His voracious musical appetite in this age of unlimited access means he can obsess on obscure Joe Boyd-produced songwriter Vashti Bunyan (with whom he's worked) and the late Karen Dalton as easily as on the Clash; his albums, therefore, always have a loose focus that sounds as if he's skipped right over to completing Sides 5 and 6 of Sandinista!
I had the luxury of spending a few hours at Bearsville Studios in upstate New York back in 2005 while Banhart recorded his previous album, Cripple Crow with Pernice Brothers' Thom Monahan at the production desk back. People came and went throughout the day and joined in jamboree style. Not so much a recording date as a stealth party that showed no sign of abating. Devendra recorded enough for several albums worth of material, and figuring out when the tracks were actually completed seemed to be the most difficult task at hand. You can always use more handclaps, after all.
His latest album, Smokey Rolls, is recorded with his good friend and co-conspirator Noel Georgeson, and it smacks of more first-thought, only-thought. Banhart's developing into one bizarre singer, sounding Spanish even when he's singing in English, using unusual phrasings and odd tonalities to alter the outcome. He reminds me of For Little Ones-era Donovan, when Dono decided to sing for children. Only problem is this guy needs more pop, less Tim Buckley-like weirdness. Otherwise, he's going to scare everyone away.
Devendra Banhart plays the Majestic Theater (4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700) on Wednesday, Sept. 19.
Rob O'Connor writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].