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Freak-folk figurehead gets lost

by admin November 10, 2009

Devendra Banhart
What Will We Be
(Reprise; 2009)

5.5/10

The dust has settled and as suspected, freak-folk figurehead, Devendra Banhart has been a pop troubadour all along.
On his seventh studio album, What Will We Be, Banhart overcompensates for the often criticized scatterbrained and elongated approach that was 2007’s Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, by passing up on lavish instrumentation favouring a polished, streamlined sound.

Opening with the casual track, “Can’t Help But Smiling,” Banhart and company present a tighter musical mould. Pianos twinkle, guitar strings are delicately plucked, and the whole sound is bound together by Paul Butler’s slick production. This newly established direction is furthered by “Angelika,” a sedate vocal-driven number that could easily moonlight as a children’s show sing-a-long. Toward the track’s midway point, Banhart revisits the Spanish crooning that has occasionally appeared in his past catalogue. Unfortunately, the shift doesn’t strike in a particularly authentic manner, sounding tacked on instead of seamlessly integrated.

“Baby,” a tune that borrows from the beach bum singer-songwriter genre of the early 2000s, is perhaps the worst Banhart has ever put to tape. When a Devendra ditty can be mentioned in the same breath as the work of Jack Johnson’s pal and surfer-musician Donovan Frankenreiter, you know there’s an issue that needs resolving.
Musically, What Will We Be’s overarching theme is shallowness. Where Banhart’s work would consume listeners in the past, here, the songs are puddle-deep.
Sure, they’re accessible. They’re also flimsy, offering little to latch onto. “First Song For B” and “Last Song For B” are among the only songs to feature a fraction of depth, as the echoing vocals are accompanied by spare arrangements, creating the haunting aura fans have yearned for since 2004’s Nino Rojo.

Banhart’s latest is also his briefest full-length effort since the 2004 release. However, the shorter run time does not guarantee a greater focus. When skipping from the sluggish ballad “Meet Me At Lookout Point,” to the overly sweet reggae-rock of closer “Foolin,” any claims of cohesiveness are a stretch at best.
What Will We Be is the sound of an artist not low on ideas but unsure of exactly how to channel them. The album dabbles in dull freak folk and tidy pop, resulting in yet another unfocused outing from this once revered figure. Rather than incorporating a variety of elements into his identity, Banhart would be better off referring to his album’s title and settling on a conclusion.

Trial Track: “Angelika”

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