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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