Devendra Banhart | What Will We Be (Warner Bros.)

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cd_banhart.jpgWhat Will We Be plays like a watered-down version of Banhart's prior work.

Writing this review in the last month of the last year of the decade, I can confidently say that Devendra Banhart is one of my very favorite new musicians to have emerged so far this millennium. Banhart released three albums this decade that were all about as perfect as records get: Both Rejoicing in the Hands and Niño Rojo were released in 2004, with Cripple Crow, considered by most to be his real breakthrough, coming in 2005. 2007's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon was almost as good. It contained some of his best songs, but it found his tendency toward the silly getting less endearing and more out of hand -- not to mention the fact that it was overlong and had a handful of painfully bad songs. In other words, while it was still a good album, Smokey Rolls showed that Banhart did indeed have a capacity to mess up, which I hadn't heard before.

2009 has been less kind to him. Earlier this year he released an album with Greg Rogove under the band name Megapuss that was wholly lackluster, and now we have his major-label debut solo album, What Will We Be, which he reportedly finished sans label and shopped around, only to have Warner Bros. provide a surprising bite on the line. And while What was apparently undoctored by Warner, it sounds like most people's worst fear of when a fiercely independent act gets picked up by a major label.

That is to say that What Will We Be plays like a watered-down version of Banhart's prior work: safer, more boring, with his silly old tricks either reigned in or ineffectual. This is exhibited on the opening track, "Can't Help But Smiling," which takes his  inherent hippie-ness in an unpleasant direction, repeatedly singing the cringe-worthy line that doubles as the as the song's title, with "smiling" rhyming with "violin" in Banhart's pronunciation.

Prior to its release, a few tracks from What Will We Be leaked either officially through Warner Bros. or via YouTube videos of performances, such as the thoroughly forgettable "Baby" and "Angelika." If you heard those songs prior to the album's release and were put off by them as I was, don't buy this record, because pretty much the whole thing's like that. Even "Chin Chin & Muck Muck," which sounded pretty good in its live YouTube video, isn't quite as fun on the album, though it is the closest he comes to the catchy goofiness of the lyrics of his best work, with lines like "I'm gonna braid exotic birds into your hair" or "Now that I'm an old hag/ All I gots are things that sag."

Thankfully, a two-song reprieve from the mundane arrives about halfway through the album, with the genuinely good "16th & Valencia Roxy Music" and "Rats." "16th" is catchy while "Rats" is jammy, though of the two, "16th" sounds fresher and "Rats" sounds like Banhart trying (semi-successfully) to recapture the success he found with Smokey Rolls' first single, "Seahorse."

I maintained earlier that Smokey Rolls' couple of bad tracks showed Banhart's capacity to fail, and fail here he did. By the same logic, What Will We Be's couple of good tracks show the artist's capacity to be an incredibly engaging songwriter. Hopefully his next album reflects this. C- | Pete Timmermann

 

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