Devendra Banhart, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon

James McNair

By James McNair

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon

Devendra Banhart

An eclectic love letter to the kind of popular music that predominated in the late 1960's and early '70's, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon is pretty much everything the Sex Pistols railed against. It boasts freedom chimes and geese calls, a 72-minute running time, wig-out solos and delicate songs about folks named Cristobal. I hear the Allman Brothers, but I also hear Marc Bolan gone Tropicália, Bread, the Band, Sly Stone, and fun curios such as “Shabop Shalom,” a tale of a young man's fancy for a rabbi's daughter. Most of all, I hear Banhart and Co. doing exactly as they please — and, given time, their complete indifference to the zeitgeist is hugely seductive.

A bong-friendly world apart

Like 2005's Cripple Crow before it, Smokey finds the Texas-born, Venezuela-raised Banhart in expansive, genre-hopping mood. In part, the record laments his split with CocoRosie's Bianca Casady, but as the buoyant “Samba Vexillographica” and cutely wistful “So Long Old Bean” underline, life goes on. This being Devendra, moreover, we're talking a life less ordinary. When he and his patchouli-scented coterie of beardies the Hairy Fairies settled on the bohemian enclave of Topanga, California, as recording location, it was reportedly on the back of a consultation with a Tarot card reader.

The view afforded them by the album's eponymous canyon clearly proved inspirational. Banhart, aka Smokey, leads English- and/or Spanish-language-sung sorties into sticky funk (“Lover”), Hammond organ-driven gospel (“Gospel”), crazed, tripped-out rock (“Tonada Yanomaminista”) and ballads that ache as gently as long-lost friendships (“Freely,” “I Remember”). Best of all, perhaps, is “Seahorse,” which begins in tumbleweed-dreamy country mode, then morphs via a change of time signature into something reminiscent of both Dave Brubeck and the Doors. The aptly titled Smokey is a bong-friendly world apart.