The idea of the crazed, fringe artist is alive and well in our new friend Devendra Banhart. From images of trickster minstrels carved on ancient cave walls to current copies like Robyn Hitchcock, we love the idea of musicians as nutjobs. There's a bigger history to this. Crazy people are supposed to speak the truth. They see more than us normal folk, limited as we are by reality and a need for good hygiene. But, they are a cipher for realms beyond the ordinary. They are a cure for Pat Boone and boy bands. Our music eccentrics are expected to deliver the cosmic goods. What to make of the neophyte member of the oddball club, Mr. Banhart? Nino Rojo, his third release on Young God Records, provides a few answers.
From the crazy album art (self conscious attempts at replicating
the scribblings of a schizophrenic) to the vulnerable warble
to the childlike yet cracked psychosexual musings that make
up the lyrics as well as the sparse accompaniment, Banhart's
third album seems a lot like the second, Rejoicing
in the Hands. This isn't too surprising, since both
albums are culled from the same session. Apparently, the songs
just poured out of the guy, making two releases a necessity.
Set in the same tower of song in which Syd Barrett, Robyn Hitchcock,
early Dylan and Tiny Tim share bed space, Nino Rojo
continues Banhart's idiot savant creative streak.
The songs themselves unfold in a nursery rhyme sort of way. Each is a vaguely existential ditty, equal parts merry and macabre. There's nothing overtly menacing here, just idiosyncratic musings occasionally punctuated by slightly unsettling lyrics ("I smell my sister in Winter" or "your eyelash is an island"). This is no small relief in a post-Marilyn Manson world, where shock is superficial and nuanced unsettling is as rare.
The musical accompaniment is similar to Rejoicing
in the Hands, as it is mostly skeletal, blues tinged
folk with Banhart's vocals in the fore. The occasional guest
vocal, strings or even horns embellish these proceedings, sometimes
delicately, and always add color. Color is important here, since
such spare presentation and idiosyncratic affectation tend to
blur songs together. The vocals, prominent as they are, come
across as both blessing and curse. To those stirred by Banhart's
unique cracked, fragile waver, it's a feast. Those off-put by
sincere and self conscious vocal affection (see Bob Dylan and,
yikes, Alanis Morissette) might find it tough going.
All in all, there's enough cracked genius in this album to warrant two discs from the same session. The first disc might win, by a hair, over this one. That might be due to my initial exposure, first looks being important to artists outside the mold like Banhart. I still feel there's something important in Banhart. It's nascent and still beholden to the afore mention crazy artists archetype of Banhart's forefathers. He might not break that mold, might even cause a snigger to those steeped in Barretisms or things Fegmanic. But there's a tortured, yearning thing I can glimpse in his best moments. That's the sort of madness, be it visionary or just the ordinary crap of everyday existence, that makes art real and gives you something to hum past the graveyard.