The best descriptors for Devendra Banhart's latest album, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, come in pairs; one at a time doesn't do justice to its heady tensions or its creator's labyrinthine mystique. The record is kinetic yet placid, pensive yet droll, erratic yet strangely cohesive.
The fact that singular phrases can't encapsulate Smokey Rolls reflects Banhart's open-armed, hypersensuous approach to making music. And for the second album in a row, it's hard to call his sound "folk" in any strict sense of the word. These 16 tracks go beyond the shape-shifting expansion of 2005's Cripple Crow. Smokey Rolls is the first of Banhart's five full-lengths to be embellished well beyond acoustic guitar and his reedy quaver. (The term "full-length" itself means something different for Banhart than it does other artists — this time he narrowed 45 songs down to 16: "We were just going to make it a short record," he says, over the phone from Glasgow, Scotland. "Well, for us it was a short thing.")
Collaboration is a concept Banhart mentions frequently, and not only in reference to individuals like Noah Georgeson, a longtime friend and co-producer who helped facilitate the nomadic, answering-machine-aided recordings that became Banhart 's 2002 debut, Oh Me Oh My. The winding tale the singer relates about his latest album title involves sights, sensations, and tidbits — a series of drawings, a call from his mother, a kingsnake, a red-backed lizard, a blaze of blue gas flames, and a shamanistic figure dancing among cacti — that entered his consciousness in rapid succession one day.
"I think that's the most important thing about making a record — staying open to collaborating with the outside world and with the creative spirit, which you could also call Mother Nature and all that shit," he says. Songwriting is apparently a similarly harmonious process. "Flopping out a tune or two is a collaborative thing. It comes from out there and then it takes some weird fucked-up form of discipline."
Banhart chose a hillside house in Los Angeles' Topanga Canyon (the same area where Neil Young recorded much of After the Gold Rush) as a place to live and write and record his new album. He was perhaps hoping that the natural surroundings and nearby Pacific Ocean would lend the music a certain vibrant color — which they did — but he wasn't anticipating another affect the locale would have. His home studio attracted all manner of visitors, absorbed into the recording process just by virtue of their being around.
"Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes lives probably ten houses down from us in the canyon," says Banhart. "He came over, and he was playing the charango [a small stringed instrument akin to a lute] while we were playing a song, and it sounded perfect, so we said, 'Hey, let's just do it.' [Actor] Gael Garcia Bernal came over, and he was singing along to ["Cristobal"], which is in Spanish. That's why his voice is so gentle and low, because it was his first time singing it. It wasn't like 'Come over and record.' It was like 'This is where I live.' And all of this just because the studio happens to be the house."
With so many bodies in and out all the time, and with Banhart's omnivorous musical tastes, it's no wonder that several tracks on Smokey Rolls are animated with an assortment of freewheeling and highly danceable feels. More than any other song, "Seahorse" embodies the sonic drift of the album; over the course of eight minutes, a dazed whisper gives way to sweeping 6/8 swing punctuated by fuzzy stoner rock. On the other hand, the rubbery bass, vernal funk riffing, and jingly tambourine of "Love" would have been at home on a Jackson 5 tune, though that's not the case with the song's colorful proposals: "I wanna be the pear tree/ I want you to climb all over me/ Try my food and taste my seed."
"Saved" is slow-burning, organ-lifted gospel-soul, complete with brassy melismas courtesy of the Black Crowes' sometime backing vocalists. Here, Banhart's vibrato takes on a grandstanding, oddly Elvis Presley-like sheen. "That one took a lot of rum for me," Banhart admits. "That's me singing around probably 3:30, 4 in the morning and heavily rummed." Lithe, breezy, and crooned in Spanish, "Samba Vexillographica" conjures the sounds of Banhart's Venezuelan childhood (vexillography is the design of flags).
The fact that three songs are sung in Spanish — while another is in Portuguese — only intensifies the emotions on this disc, be they wistful, exuberant, or seductive. "That probably has nothing to do with me," says Banhart. "That's the nature of the romantic language that is Spanish." Overall, the singer's voice is a few shades deeper than on Oh Me Oh My, and mellower and more versatile than it was pre-Cripple Crow. "I feel like my scrotum has dropped a little bit more," he says roguishly. "It's dropped just barely a millimeter down with each album. So my [vocal] range has increased just a little bit. They say that the scrotum is the window to the voice — to the soul, actually."
Genitalia — specifically the humorous name-dropping of a frenectomy (or circumcision) — also surfaces during "Shabop Shalom," '50s-style doo-wop narrating a youthful, religion-crossed love affair. "It all comes from experience, in a way, or some knowledge," Banhart says of the characters in the song. "I've never been a young Jamaican boy who's fallen in love with a rabbi's daughter, but I've listened to mento, bluebeat, rocksteady, ska, reggae. I know a small amount about Judaism, the Kabbalah, and shit like that, and also Rastafarian culture and Jamaican Patwa. I thought it would be really fun to put them together."
"Fun" doesn't fully capture the deliciously absurd appeal of a line like "You want to know who wrote the Book of Job/ She wants to know who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls," which sounds suspiciously like the Monotones' hit "(Who Wrote) The Book of Love?"
Banhart isn't without personal boundaries, porous as they may be. When his house buzzed with studio-building energy, he holed up in his writing room. "There's this kind of weird solitude amongst so much activity," he says. Fittingly, a lonely wind can be felt blowing through the final quartet of songs — growing stronger with each one — as though the party has subsided and the bandleader is left with nothing to distract him from his ruminations. Three of the tracks — the subdued, heartsick reggae of "The Other Woman," lulling piano ballad "I Remember," and the brief, delicate inhalations of "My Dearest Friend" — treat the feelings of loss that come with crumbled love. But even those moments are laced with hope, sounding no more hardened or closed off than the rest of the album. "My Dearest Friend" ends Smokey Rolls with a completed circle; Banhart breathes "I'm gonna die of loneliness," before reassuring the listener — and presumably himself — "My dearest friend/ You'll soon begin/ To love again."
Despite what recently published articles in the British press may claim, Banhart insists that Smokey Rolls is not to be mistaken for a breakup album. "I feel a little bit confused, because I never mentioned any such thing. I don't want to perpetuate that kind of bullshit," he says. "It definitely was a hard year, but I feel like there's a lot of hope on the record. It doesn't totally represent my experiences with my present or ex-lovers. Of course, everyone makes it into the songs. But to say that it's about one certain thing . . ."
It's better to call Banhart's latest a further loosening of the reins. "After every song, I'm sure that I'll never write another. I go through that 'Oh shit — that's it. I have no idea how to do this.' But in the end, I'm just getting better at not knowing what I'm doing." And elasticity can be an exhilarating thing.