Having reached something of a tipping point following the release of 2005’s Cripple Crow, his fourth album and first recorded with a full band, Devendra Banhart fully unfurls the ol’ freak flag on Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, and what once passed for quirk now comes across as strident post-neocrunch posturing. In place of his recent output’s Lohan infatuation, lo-fi four-tracked songs that, among other accomplishments, set the mood for rapist cannibal mutants, and Cripple Crow‘s largely unaddressed undercurrent of pedophilia, Banhart has taken to dividing his time between dressing like an extra from Moulin Rouge!‘s final set piece and recording the almost entirely unsuccessful genre pastiches that comprise nearly half of Smokey. The results are a tiresome spectacle.
On his earlier records, Banhart found ways to incorporate his love for various genre forms into his own brand of vaguely mystical, often deliberately juvenile modern folk. Here, the songs come off as little more than uninspired, rote genre exercises that revel in their own clichés. He busts out a gospel choir on “Saved,” badly misses the mark on ‘70s funk with “Lover,” and apes the style of Santana’s tepid latter-day collaborations on “Carmencita.” Then there’s the matter of “Shabop Shalom,” a stultifying bit of Platters-style doo-wop that hinges on “ethnic humor” (“When I’m ever in a foul mood/I gotta see you in your Talmud”) that’s actually worse than every line of dialogue in Keeping Up with the Steins. If they aren’t really convincing, at least his attempts at samba, yacht rock, and reggae don’t fly in the face of reason or taste.
The remainder of Smokey consists of Banhart continuing to experiment a bit with use of a backing band, and most of those songs serve as reminders that, for all the cloying bullshit, he’s actually a compelling, unique songwriter. Opener “Cristobal,” which boasts a guest vocal from Gael García Bernal, has one of Banhart’s most unconventional but most memorable melodies, and “Bad Girl” makes excellent use of a slide guitar in providing texture for one of Banhart’s best vocals. “Seahorse” strives for epic in both length and ambition, making use of a 5/4 meter in its outsized latter half. The rest of Smokey is less ambitious, the closing pair of ballads, “I Remember” and “My Dearest Friend,” recalling the simplicity of Rejoicing in the Hands and Niño Rojo, Banhart’s two best records. On Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, however, Banhart comes across as an attention whore; the mannered, look-what-I-can-do kook act overshadows his actual talent.