Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, Devendra Banhart’s fifth album, still features the sort of music that have established him as a charismatic, mischievous, and nonetheless, strange figure.
When I was first introduced to him on his first album, Oh Me Oh My. . ., as an 8th grader, Banhart came across as a somewhat creepy, supernatural figure. Soon, however, I was addicted to his folkish psychedelic nature, a leader of “freaks”, a hippy it was OK to like. I found it silly how Banhart sang of little yellow spiders and taking his teeth out dancing. Real life did not seem to stop much of his strangeness, and I was drawn into his make-believe world.
When he’s not singing about his love life on Smokey Rolls or spinning tall tales, Banhart is redifining himself as a free spirit. On “Freely”, he constructs a composition that would seemingly touch the first hippy generation. His mother doesn’t understand, he notes, but “Still there’s only one way to shine, it’s called trying to live freely.” As with most of Devendra’s lyrics, they’re enough to give you goosebumps, they were completely ridiculous in nearly every way, but somehow I found a way to relate to them.
Smokey Rolls isn’t really a folk album, however, and there are stretches where Banhart seems to be on the run from his old sound. He seems to jump genres from gospel “Saved”, to somewhat Jackson 5 pop-soul,“Lover”, onto a mellow, saddening reggae, “The Other Woman” and a salsa jam that ends, gloriously, with a guitar solo, “Carmensita”. Then, of course, there’s the doo-wop of “Shabop Shalom”.
Smokey does have a handful of songs that capture Banhart's odd folk and changing emotion. For the most part, this happens when he keeps things simple. Opener "Cristobal" is a modest tune with a weaving melody, while "Tonada Yanomaminista" is energetic and sharp, practically caffeinated compared to the sluggishness around it. Even better is "Bad Girl", whose gentleness found to be hypnotic rather than sleepy. Over all, Banhart's tale of romance was achingly pretty—entirely enjoyable.
Similar simplicity appears at the album's end. Best is the final cut, "My Dearest Friend." As Banhart moans how he will "die from loneliness," the track does the opposite, gaining strength from its lack of heavy effects. It's a strong way to close Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, but an even stronger reminder of how much better Banhart can be.
Banhart’s sound is definitely not something usual, but unusualness never meant bad. I had this album on repeat for weeks after I first got it, and I still haven’t worn it out like I had expected. Devendra opens a new pathway for those who want to discover a different, interesting, and particularly strange new time of music.