When keepin' it "freak folk" goes wrong

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Artist: Devendra Banhart Track: "Bad Girl" Album: Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon


Doing some early morning music searches for local bands on MySpace, I came across a featured page for freak folk pioneer Devendra Banhart, who once looked like a friendly panhandler and now looks like the bearded lady in some backwoods transvestite circus.

Bizarre. Really, really bizarre.

(Side question: Am I reacting to Banhart's new garb how my grandparents reacted to the cover of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars? Probably. But I'm giving his music another chance, at least.)

In fact, I'm loving nearly everything I've heard from Banhart's fifth release for XL Recordings, which comes out September 24. His music is hard to categorize - as is the genre that he didn't start but now represents in the minds of those who came up with the name.

For starters, freak folk borrows from folk, of course, but manipulates calm, rural themes with synthesizers, looping techniques, pedals and other technology that would make Pete Seeger shake in his workboots. Musicians such as Brightblack Morning Light and Vetiver, both aligned with Banhart in one way or another, also draw heavily from The Beach Boys, The Byrds and psychedelic rock, specifically the acid-tinged recordings produced in San Francisco in the late '60s.

Why Banhart has come to represent a loose collective of really amazing musicians lies with his ability to shift shapes at will and to maintain his unique sherpa personality amid disparate influences that don't seem able to mesh.

He's clearly the best at what he does, and this album is evidence of that.

"Bad Girl" is a good introduction - it never gets too weird - and showcases his softest side, as he wanders into that lonely and hollow galactic space once populated by Mazzy Star.