Album: Devendra Banhart
Cripple Crow, XL
Friday 16 September 2005
Which is entirely appropriate, as Cripple Crow is steeped in the values and attitudes of that brief, Edenic moment when hippiedom's interest in Oriental mysticism fused with folk's earthy traditionalism to produce a sort of neo-medievalist folk-pop revolution, before prog-rock smothered everything in pointless solos and countless decibels. It's like the best Tyrannosaurus Rex album since Unicorn, the best Donovan album since Gift From a Flower to a Garden, and the best ISB album since Wee Tam & The Big Huge - and as with the latter two at least, it's a vast anthology of oddball whimsy, utopian pacifism, rustic charm and speak-like-a-child naivete, related through a shifting palette of fluttering guitars, droning sitars and simpering strings and breathy flutes like those with which Ray Warleigh and Harold McNair caressed the work of Donovan, John Martyn and Nick Drake.
Quite what it means for American musicians to be effectively re-imagining themselves as British hippy throwbacks remains to be seen, but it must be acknowledged that Banhart's rejection of the callow complaints and knee-jerk nihilism which now customarily dominate most American "alternative" rock makes for a welcome and refreshing change, as do the resolutely lo-fi, largely acoustic settings. "I realise it ain't wise to idealise/ Or put your life in the hands of any struggle," he reflects in the opening "Now That I Know", eschewing activism for inner development of a more mystical form. It's debatable whether Banhart's innocent utopianism is an adequate response to an increasingly complex world: whether an argument such as "It's simple - we don't want to kill" isn't in fact a touch too simple.
Musically, Banhart has broadened his approach on Cripple Crow, augmenting his guitar and piano parts with hand percussion, wisps of dobro, viola, cello and sitar, and the occasional thread of distorted electric guitar. For all that, the solo guitar instrumental "Sawkill River" is one of the highlights here, bested only by "I Feel Just like a Child", his evocation of the wonder of childhood and the miracle of growth, "from being my daddy's sperm/ to being packed in an urn".
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