Plumbiferous Media

What Will We Be - Devendra Banhart

Nov 1st 2009
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What Will We Be - Devendra BanhartDevendra Banhart
What Will We Be
Score: 54

Deven­dra Ban­hart has been releas­ing music since 2002, and play­ing it for sub­stan­tial­ly longer. His music, linked to every sub-genre of folk pos­si­ble, has been not­ed for its unique­ness as well as its occa­sion­al strange­ness. His newest and 7th LP, What Will We Be, shows the same cre­ativ­i­ty as does Ban­hart’s ear­li­er work, but occa­sion­al mis­steps pre­vent it from being any­thing more than a decent album.

As far as instru­men­tals are con­cerned, What Will We Be is mediocre. While there are some extreme­ly strong tracks, such as “Goin’ Back,” with its excel­lent­ly detailed lead gui­tar line and per­fect use of vio­lins, or the active, com­plete­ly unique “16th & Valen­cia Roxy Music,” many of the tracks on What Will We Be either have instru­men­tals that are sim­ply for­get­table, or some­what bor­ing and slight­ly repet­i­tive. These issues are, of course, only com­pound­ed by the some­what mid­dling record­ing qual­i­ty, which adds some degree of fuzz, with a hint of a shrill edge, to every sound on the album (avoid­able even with lo-fi techniques).

Deven­dra Ban­hart’s vocals show influ­ence from a range of musi­cal gen­res, from clas­sic rock, to indie, to the folk with which he is most often iden­ti­fied. It’s a well-done com­bi­na­tion, and the soft, con­tem­pla­tive sound of Ban­hart’s voice takes a bit of each to form a sound that is com­plete­ly his own. At the best moments of What Will We Be, Ban­hart’s voice sweeps gen­tly above the melod­ic instru­men­tals, occa­sion­al­ly pushed into greater relief. In oth­er moments, though, Ban­hart’s voice seems some­what over­stretched, as if the desired effect is an all-encom­pass­ing sound that instead falls a bit flat when Ban­hart’s voice is pushed under the instru­men­tals, pre­vent­ing the music from being as alive as it could oth­er­wise have been. Addi­tion­al­ly, occa­sion­al failed exper­i­ments, such as the sick­en­ing­ly sweet voice singing a refrain of “la la la” on “Chin Chin & Muck Muck,” turn out to be more puz­zling than illu­mi­nat­ing, and as a whole, the vocals end up sim­ply mediocre.

Ban­hart’s lyrics tend towards slight­ly unusu­al imagery and occa­sion­al sur­re­al­ism, and What Will We Be is no excep­tion. Ban­hart tells four­teen quite dif­fer­ent sto­ries (even the obvi­ous­ly linked “First Song for B” and “Last Song for B” are appre­cia­bly dif­fer­ent) through the course of the album, occa­sion­al­ly chang­ing lyri­cal pace in the mid­dle of a track, as with “Chin Chin & Muck Muck.” How­ev­er, this isn’t always suc­cess­ful, and con­tributes to a slight­ly dis­joint­ed feel­ing that sur­rounds the album. When it works, though, it’s cer­tain­ly clear: one of the best tracks of the album is the ener­getic “Rats,” which Ban­hart begins “One above / Heav­en under / One for thirst / One for hunger / I am the dark / You are the thun­der / I am the doubt / You are the won­der.” But as well as “Rats” works, it can’t quite stand out enough to dis­tin­guish itself among the album as a whole - prob­a­bly the best indi­ca­tion of What Will We Be’s issues with over-variety.

What Will We Be is an incred­i­bly var­ied album. And while diver­si­ty through an album is cer­tain­ly a good thing, it is safe to say that What Will We Be is just too diverse. This some­times still man­ages to play out in Ban­hart’s favor, for exam­ple, on “Rats,” which, ignor­ing the odd­ly con­struct­ed tran­si­tions, makes the album quite a bit more inter­est­ing. How­ev­er, the sub­se­quent three tracks, from “Maria Lion­za” to “Meet Me at the Look­out Point,” are bare­ly con­nect­ed to the rest of the album or to each oth­er, and are sim­ply confusing.

What Will We Be has its strong points and weak points. Gen­er­al­ly com­pelling vocals are often over­ly sub­dued and dis­solved into the instru­men­tals, incred­i­bly inter­est­ing instru­men­tal sec­tions are sur­round­ed by weak­er tracks, and while What Will We Be is gen­er­ous­ly var­ied, it had dif­fi­cul­ty com­ing togeth­er into a cohe­sive unit. Over­all, while What Will We Be pro­vides a pleas­ant lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence, it is not an out­stand­ing album.

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