Beyond freak-folk

It seems Devendra Banhart finally has something to say. The 24-year-old songwriter and de facto masthead for the loose knit, and as of late much belittled, freak-folk movement has decided to up the ante. Cripple Crow, Banhart’s third album, and first true studio endeavor leaves behind the delicate warbling four-track that defined Oh Me, Oh My and Rejoicing in the Hands/Nino Rojo and instead offers an immensely accessible and occasionally straight up rocking album populated not with fairies and lost friends, but with idealism, reflection and a lovely long beard.


Lyrically, it’s as if the spotlight that has been cast on Banhart for the past three years is finally getting to him. He realizes that people are listening, and finds himself looking for something to say. At their most lucid, Banhart’s early albums are simple letters home, filled with inside jokes and abstractions, but on Cripple Crow bigger statements are made, subversiveness is embraced and the war and its perpetrators are condemned. There is still a sense of the mystical and small, like the precious simple love of “Santa Maria De Feira” and the wicked silliness of “Chinese Children.” But the soul of the album leans away from obscura to more tangible themes. “I Feel Just Like a Child” rings with Bob Dylan’s snide humor and “Korean Dogwood” swaggers its way through childhood memories. In fact, childhood and children permeate this album, a call to innocence and an adoration of the innocent which has caused certain straight laced squares to raise questions of Michael Jackson proportions.


Musically, Cripple Crow is a straight-up rocker. With a slew of the movement’s finest in the studio and behind the boards, Banhart conjures the three-chord backbeat of the early days of rock. On the whole, the doo-wop progressions, drenched in glorious reverb are refreshing and a bit of a relief. I imagine getting that many talented beards in one studio and not making a Phish-y mess of the deal would be a real challenge. But instead of Trey Anastasio’s wanky naptimes we get rollicking early guitar solos and R&B burners. Banhart embraces the continuum of rock here, manifesting ghostly specters of Chuck Berry and Johnny Ray, and giving shout outs to the living Beatles.   


The danger of this highly produced sound is its accessibility. It’s just as easy as it is to embrace the shimmering “Dragonflies” or rolling “Mama Wolf” while headily floating above one’s backyard as it is to embrace them while driving to yoga in your new Prius.


The album is beautiful and digestible in ways that its predecessors never were, and in a way that’s rather scary. While it’s impossible to picture “Little Boys” in rotation next to the radio friendly schmaltz of Ben Gibbard’s “Plans,” it’s not unreasonable to picture Dansko-wearing soccer moms humming “Luna De Margarita.” But maybe, just maybe, this will open people’s minds and the door for other musicians much the way the Banhart-curated “Golden Apples of the Sun” did earlier this year. And maybe one day we’ll look outside and see a world that resembles Cripple Crow‘s idyllic cover. One filled with love, family, reverb and glorious, glorious beards.