Devendra Banhart - What Will We Be
Label: Warner Bros. Records
Format: 2 × Vinyl, LP, Gatefold
180 Gram Vinyl
Released: 27 Oct 2009
Genre: Folk, World, & Country, Rock
A1 Can't Help But Smiling
A4 Goin' Back
B1 First Song For B
B2 Last Song For B
B3 Chin Chin & Muck Muck
B4 16th & Valencia Roxy Music
C2 Maria Lionza
C4 Meet Me At Lookout Point
D3 Welcome To The Island
D4 Pray For The Other Persons Happiness
2009 album from the acclaimed singer/songwriter. What Will We Be has a sunny, breezy feel with performances that evoke warm, lazy afternoons spent with good friends. The album is dominated by powerfully melodic, mid-tempo numbers played with relaxed expertise. But there's also ambitious stylistic range displayed with the inclusion of evanescent ballads like 'Meet Me At the Lookout Point,' the epic riff-rocker 'Rats', sprightly R&B flavored groovers on 'Baby,' and the sultry Latin-flavored stunner 'Brindo,' and the Roxy-inspired '16th & Valencia Roxy Music' among other pleasant surprises. The album was recorded in a sleepy Northern California town throughout the Spring of 2009, and was co-produced by Paul Butler (from UK outfit Band Of Bees).
At first glance, What Will We Be-- Banhart's sixth album and his first for Reprise-- does feel a bit like the kind of record that might break him to an audience on the right side of an FM dial or using WiFi at Starbucks. "16th & Valencia, Roxy Music", after all, is an agile, escapist folk-disco rave about "ridin' six white horses" and "free dancin'." "Rats" is a Led Zeppelin-baiting anthem with a midsection about, again, dancing, kissing, and general merriment. And from the bright-eyed opener "Can't Help But Smiling" through the whispered, pale country boogie of "Goin Back", the album's first quarter offers a rather sunny, upbeat initiation. Banhart's writing seems normalized, too: "Love is the only thing truly worth needing," he posits at one point. "Every kiss that we miss is another life we don't live," at another. Love, drinks, drugs, colloquialisms, creation myths: What Will We Be could be a great big common lawn for aged hippies, album-rock veterans, and college-rock kids alike.
But across its 14 tracks and 50 minutes, What Will We Be again sounds like Banhart's attempt to prove he can take risks and sound interesting without his acoustic guitar. A mess of scrambled styles that ostracizes more often than it charms, at least one-third of this record plays like a batch of covers cribbed from one of those Putamayo world-music collections at Whole Foods. "Angelika" veers left from its Brazilian-cum-bluegrass lilt to show it can samba and Banhart can twist and yowl in Spanish. "Foolin'" splices reggae with the Beatles and succeeds in sounding just slightly less milquetoast than Eric Clapton's turn at island music. Meanwhile, first single "Baby" gets goofy about romance (which makes you say "holy moly" and feel like a bow-tied kangaroo, apparently) over a flimsy highlife trot.
And every time Banhart lands something genuinely agreeable, he finds a way to hamstring it: "Walilamdzi", one of the most wistful tunes in Banhart's catalog, is a simple fingerpicked reverie. Sung in the mostly lost language of Northern California's Pit River Indians, though, it comes with an inherently off-putting defense. And it's not enough that "The First Song for B" is the latest in a series of sublime Banhart piano ballads. No, it meanders into the acoustic morass "The Last Song for B", where Banhart listlessly intones, "A movement/ Attunement/ A new dream/ Beyond dream." Who knew it was so easy to sound more vague than Akron/Family?
In 2004, Banhart sang, "It's like finding home in an old folk song/ That you've never ever heard/ Still you know every word/ And, for sure, you can sing along." And that's how those early records felt-- familiar yet foreign, as if Banhart had found and reshaped something we didn't know we'd lost. Favorable reviews of What Will We Be will likely toss off adjectives like multicultural or eclectic and epithets like polyglot or plunderer. "He's only exploring," they'll say. But Banhart's third album of unhinged stylistic exploration feels more like a reach than a quest-- a timid attempt to distract with a grab bag of forms rather than to engage any one idea with vigor and innovation. We're left with songs afraid to stake interesting artistic claims ("Goin Back" puts the Flying Burrito Brothers in an autoclave) or defend them (see the needlessly circuitous "Chin Chin & Muck Muck") for very long. More focused on offering Banhart's international and oddball bona fides than crafting songs that feel at all like home, What Will We Be finds Banhart in need of direction and editing. Or, as Banhart sings on that awful dance tune of his, "We don't know what to do." Here's hoping that, someday soon, he may figure it out.
DEVENDRA BANHART - WHAT WILL WE BE
MONTEVIDEO URUGUAY 2011
Devendra Banhart - Baby
Devendra Banhart performs "baby" live at the Independent in San Francisco
Devendra Banhart - Angelika (2009)
Devendra Banhart - Foolin'