Imagination and International Perspective: Devendra Banhart’s Cripple Crow

By Daniel Garrett

Devendra Banhart
Cripple Crow
All songs by Devendra Banhart
(except “Luna de Margarita” by Simon Diaz)
Produced by Noah Georgeson, Thom Monahan,
Andy Gabic, and Devendra Banhart
XL Recordings Ltd., 2005

I think that Devendra Banhart is a man and musician who has been transformed by freedom; and he is not only a pleasure to listen to, he is liberating. Freedom is an ideal that is celebrated in the abstract, and it is used as a slogan of defense in politics and international maneuvers, and as an excuse to justify petty and selfish deeds. That is a terrible freedom. Freedom can be the key to greater imagination, to greater love, to greater works: and that is when it becomes most threatening, when it is used to buttress other high ideals which are challenging to achieve and which offer uncertain satisfactions. That is a freedom of wonder; and I think that is the freedom of Devendra Banhart. Devendra Banhart’s Cripple Crow is a very generous album: it contains twenty-two songs, of varying lengths, and they offer beauty and originality. In “Now That I Know,” Devendra Banhart sings, “You got to pay back every penny you owe,” and Banhart sings in a low, hushed but clear voice, and a guitar’s notes create a solemn mood as the song explores debt, secrecy, time passing, travel, elusive connections, and there are assertions of honesty and talk of glory. “Santa Maria Da Feira” is a song with Spanish language and sound and some East Indian accents. That suggests an international perspective as it actually occurs in the world: it is a vibrant remnant of the world’s many cultures, many sounds, and many voices. “I heard somebody say that the war ended today, but everybody knows it’s going still,” sings Banhart in the short song “Heard Somebody Say.” (Which war is supposed to have ended? The American-Iraq war? Has the war been going on so long—and so badly—that it has entered the consciousness of most artists; and artists assume we know enough about it that we do not require specifics? What unfortunate shared knowledge.) Banhart sings, “It’s simple: we don’t wanna kill.” Heavy percussion with a vocal performance that reminds me of Bob Dylan are present in “Long Haired Child,” in which Banhart’s narrator is a bald man who considers growing a beard as compensation and says he’ll have a child with long hair. (Banhart, whose discernible influences include Dylan and the Beatles, also quotes a decades-old song in the nonsense phrase shubop, shubop.) With eastern sounds—tablas, and some kind of chime or bell-like instrument—and a voice that seems eccentric, Banhart performs “Lazy Butterfly”; and “Quedateluna” is a Spanish ballad. Banhart has created a genuine music—of fresh subject matter, of sounds that have a coolly glimmering heat, and it all seems native to him.

Infatuation and admiration form the subject of “Queen Bee,” and in “I Feel Just Like a Child,” which sounds like a secular hymn that affirms eternal youthfulness (and suggests worrying dependency), Banhart inspires me to think that just as I have sometimes seen that the weakest people—weak in perception, strength of character, and tolerance—are sometimes the most controlling, that it is also often the case that the strongest personalities can want to be catered to, nurtured, and provided for most.

“Some People Ride the Wave”—of generosity, of mediocrity: there are different avenues and energies that allow survival and prosperity: “and some people ride (write?) the books that bastardize our claims.” In both English and Spanish, the snippet entitled “The Beatles” acknowledges an influence the listener already suspected. “Dragonflys” is a puzzle-song, a poetic fantasy, of just a few lines. In the album’s title song “Cripple Crow” Devendra Banhart sings “we’ve got no guns” and “peace comes” and “now that our bones lay buried beneath us like stones pressed into earth” and “close the wound or else keep bleeding” and “change your tune—it’s got no meaning.”

“Inaniel” is another foreign-language piece, and “Hey Mama Wolf” is a song with wilderness imagery, suggesting the maternal, the romantic, and the strange. A request for a story about a complete life—involving event, coincidence, and travel—is the short song “Hows About Telling A Story.” And Banhart sings “If I lived in China, I’d have some Chinese children,” and continues with “if I lived in Russia” and “if I lived in Prussia, I’d have some Chinese children.” He even claims babies come out of his various body parts in “Chinese Children,” a shambling, bluesy rock song (it’s fun). An instrumental piece, “Sawkill River,” follows.

“When he’s on stage, I hear bad things in a good way,” Banhart sings in a short song of gratitude and good wishes, “I Love That Man,” and that lyric is not an inexact way of describing a complex and demanding thinker or artist: it’s an eloquent description of Banhart. “Luna de Margarita” is in Spanish, and “Korean Dogwood” is softly sung—and in it I think he says that all that we meant will be swallowed by the earth because it’s got no worth. The lack of satiation is its own punishment in “Little Boys,” a song that becomes hilarious pedarastic rumination: Banhart sings again and again about “so many little boys I want to marry.” The album’s closing song is a ballad of appreciation of scent, moonlight, water, and lips.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Howlin’ Wolf, Terence Trent D’Arby, Luther Vandross, Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, TV on the Radio, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Ricky Martin, the Rolling Stones, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages ofThe Compulsive Reader. Garrett’s “Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” appeared on Offscreen.com, and featured Kathleen Battle, David Bowie, Common, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Yo Yo Ma, and Caetano Veloso. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. His extensive “Notes” on culture and politics appeared on the web site of IdentityTheory.com. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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