Devendra Banhart’s appeal rests in his duality. In one hand there is the spiritual and introverted Nick Drake-esque, neofolk minstrel. In the other hand there is the obtuse musical oddity who sings in echoing moans with the creepiness of proto-glam-rockers T. Rex. He’s simultaneously comforting and dangerous. And his fourth artistic endeavor, Cripple Crow, only augments his stylistic mystique.

Born in Texas, Banhart’s parents were followers of Indian mystics – hence his uncommon name. At age two, his parents divorced, and Banhart, who began writing songs at 12 years old, was raised by his mother in the shantytowns of Caracas, Venezuela. Later he dropped out of the San Francisco Art Institute and moved to Paris, where he was discovered by a producer and began recording his music.

The opening tracks of Cripple are red herrings. The first song, “Now That I Know,” is soft and acoustic, calm without being overly maudlin. The second, “Santa Maria Da Feira,” is a wispy bossa nova sung in Spanish, complete with echoing violins and an ethereal flute, which lulls the listener into a sense of calm. One might think, “I can chill out to this.” Not so.

The third song, “Long Haired Child,” carries the listener down a much, much creepier path. Banhart’s voice changes to a Lou Reed warble (Think the strung-out stutter of “Heroin.”) as he sings “Maybe when it’s day, it’s cold, and I know for certain / When I go outside and my head started hurtin.'”

The sitar-laden jam “Lazy Butterfly” takes a sharp stylistic turn with a bizarrely sexy and mystical overtone. Conversely, the gorgeous “Queen Bee” is a poignant slide-guitar-filled ballad.

The song “The Beatles” dances from a blithe pop tune to a rich bossa nova before disintegrating into a raucous miscellany of pounding, screeching and other entropic noises. Then the title track, “Cripple Crow,” has the quality of a religious service – there’s a beautifully hypnotic aspect to it but also an impervious excitement as he sings, “Now that our bones lay buried below us / Just like stones pressed into the earth / Well we ain’t known by no one before us / And we begin with this one little birth / That grows on.”

It is a colorful, albeit unconventional progression of sound. By this point, the former idea of Banhart as a hippie-dippie folkie is shot. The man is wild, unpredictable and emotionally savage with his listeners.

But Banhart deserves credit for not only daring to show his audience his methodical insanity, but for also doing it with ease and confidence. Though his eccentric moments may raise eyebrows and cause doubt, his strong creativity and ability to concoct an unconventionally beautiful song never fail.

The music on Cripple is full of recognizable patterns and genres (folk, blues, rock) that Banhart twists to form a genre all his own. His voice shifts between a deep rusty whisper, a high almost-jarring warble and every style in between, never becoming blase. His spiritual and eccentric persona is too strong to be ignored.

One fault of the album, however, is the hefty length. There are 22 tracks, and though none of them are awful, Cripple is overbearing, and it becomes difficult to remember the songs individually – which is a shame, because Banhart’s inexhaustible talent for cultivating songs deserves to be remembered as more than just a block of sound.

 

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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