September 11, 2008

This Album Approved by Natalie Portman

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Psychedelic minstrel. Trailblazer of acid folk. Scruffy dude banging Natalie Portman. A litany of personas, one artist: Devendra Banhart.
The Venezuelan’s recent offering, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, is a clear consolidation of musical growth born amidst his experimental albums Cripple Crow and Rejoicing in the Hands.
From audacious eight-minute suite “Seahorse,” to church organ soaked “Saved,” Devendra delivers an eclectic blend of then and now, fusing retro ’60s folk rock with diggable 21st century licks. Equally a synthesizer and an innovator, the artist’s trippy vibe enables flawless execution of gutsy transitions that fall flat on most records. Here, the soft-serve-smooth Devendra pulls it off. Proof? He and Natalie P. spent the bulk of her Harvard reunion swapping spit behind the catering tent.
“Seahorse” begins as a calming folk song, disarming preconceived tensions with a deconstructed acoustic guitar. High, happy and free, Devendra glides toward heightened self-actualization, sensing the internal nature of peace. Like Dylan’s plea to the tambourine man four decades earlier, “Seahorse” explores an obviously theoretical yet surprisingly developed existence wherein he at peace and free to explore an infinite inner labyrinth.
The tempo kicks into gear as a stiff piano and punctuating drum push to the surface. B3 organ plays glue for an ambitious instrumental carnival, as Banhart trades fulfillment for desire, echoing a Gregorian: “I want to be a little seahorse.” An incendiary electric guitar bursts forth, forcing a vocal shift from McCarthy to Morrison. The Door’s frontman must be crying happy tears as the melody channels “Light My Fire.” Percussion crashes as if from the clouds; a page from Siddhartha with desire reincarnated as fear and suffering: “I’m tired of ever being born again / If it’s in the form again.” Kicking out the jams, the medley evolves into a visceral explosion from the lineage of Paige and Clapton.
Everybody knows song-by-song reviews are a drag, so let’s not. By the way, half the tracks are in Spanish. That shouldn’t bother you. If it does, you’re probably a philistine.
“Lover” and “The Other Women” are easily among the elite tracks of our decade — yes, I said “our,” step up and own it — while Shabop Shalom showcased a quaint Donovan-esqe narrative and refined satirical wit. You deserve to hear this album before you throw Crosby, Stills & Nash on the turntable for another spin.