Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon – Devendra Banhart
Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon – Devendra Banhart (XL 237)
Love is Simple – Akron/Family (Young God 34)
The main thing artists who get called “freak folk” probably have in common is their dislike of the term. However, judging from these two CDs, Akron/Family and Devendra Banhart have one more thing in common, which is that they redefine “cult” music. Phish or the Dead are like baseball depending on how deep you want to go, they can be anything from a harmless way to spend hours in the sun to a source of endless statistical fascination. Love Is Simple and Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon are experiences more along the lines of seeing compounds in the distance that look interesting, but leave you thinking you’d better not enter them without making sure first that you’ll be able to get out.
The compound idea is especially relevant to Akron/Family since many of their lyrics assert some type of love-centric, sun-worshipping belief system. Unfortunately, their two primary ways of expressing this notion through noisy communal clamor and quiet campfire kumbaya lead to their least interesting music.
The side trips are better. “I’ve Got Some Friends” goes over the course of 3:08 from sounding sort of like the Incredible String Band to sounding sort of like Yes. The opening section of “Lake Song/New Ceremonial Music for Moms” sound like “Astronomy Domine” sung over Steve Reich, and “There’s So Many Colors” gets into a stomping Crazy Horse groove in minutes five through seven. This hints at how many influences Akron/Family has on tap, and how manic they can be in embracing them. Perhaps next time they’ll apply more of their mania to the music and less to the “go out and love everyone” preaching.
If Akron/Family is ceremonial, Devendra Banhart’s disc is more like finding a mysterious radio station on a midnight drive in the middle of nowhere. A number of songs are sambas, and several are mixed in that murky, echoey early-70’s Brazil style, when they had to bury the words so the censors couldn’t make them out. Perhaps a similar strategy is at work when Banhart marries hippie lyrics to schmaltzy major-seventh music in “Freely.” That’s hardly all that he gets up to here, though, as the disc careens through dub, Brubeck, a “Spirit in the Sky” rewrite and a Jackson 5 pastiche.
Banhart goes many places, and he sounds like a fair amount of old people but like none of his contemporaries. Unfortunately, he rarely works up much energy (think of early 70’s George Harrison albums if you’re wondering how slow the pace is here) and although his lyrics make mildly compelling cases for a nonconformist life and his melodies achieve mild beauty, that’s about as far as Smokey Rolls goes. It speaks well for Banhart’s generation, not known as a patient lot, that we seem to be making him into the new misfit poster boy now that Beck is starting to age, but I find myself wishing for more of Beck’s immediacy.
Of course, now that I have put in several listens to try to come to terms with these CDs, certain melodies, primarily Banhart’s, have started cycling through my head. And I suspect there may be an e-mail or two taking exception to my reservations about both artists. Such is the way of cult music.