Devendra Banhart – What Will We Be (2009)

Have you ever listened to a record and then sat there thinking, “OK …. so what the hell was that?!” I’m not talking about individual songs that might stick out, but the whole thing.

Though there are no official rules here, the phenomenon usually occurs with artists who are new to the ears. Let’s face it, Frank Zappa’s Thing Fish is definitely a weird record but hey, it’s Zappa. Similarly, The Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World is a truly bizarre piece of, uhm … whatever it is. But I had read so much about it beforehand that it diminished the (considerable!) impact.

My first experience with Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica provides a kind of Shaggs counterexample. I had read many articles about this record, but none of them prepared my ears for the that multi-directional sonic and cultural assault. The album contains so many elements: rock music, psychedelia, folk music, blues, jazz, and even field recordings (of a sort). My ear parts were astounded.

Devendra Banhart’s What Will We Be takes a step away (forward?) from the “Freak Folk” label, bringing in elements of pure folk, Latin music, psychedelics, jazz, and even some bombastic 1970’s-style rock. Reading this as a conjugation of Carlos Santana? It’s nothing like that.

What puts this recording over the top is the breadth of styles employed, sometimes within the same tune. “Chin Chin & Muck Muck” starts off in a romantic jazz mood before a segue into oddball folk/pop story-telling. “Maria Lionza” sways back & forth with a neo-psychedelic Latin groove (if there is such a thing). “Rats” would not be out of place on any number of albums coming out of the mid-seventies with its heavy and loping, almost Led Zeppelin-style guitar refrain. “16th & Valencia Roxy Music” indeed wears its “Love Is The Drug” right there on its embroidered sleeve.

It’s sort of a sad thing that the reach of What Will We Be is so unusual, but that’s a direct commentary on the state of the biz these days. People are often confused and turned off by music that’s “too diverse.” Too bad, because when the album ends with the reggae-fied “Foolin’,” I’m sent all the way to Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. Listeners were not scared off by “D’yer Mak’er,” as Zeppelin freely (and naturally) mixed other musics with their sledgehammer riffs.

Maybe we’re headed back to that kind of attitude … to a new day where the question “What the hell was that?!” is a good thing.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.