First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2006, Volume 13, #3
Written by John Metzger
The communal scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s brought many benefits to the rapid evolution of rock ’n‘ roll, not the least of which was the cross-pollination of ideas among artists. However, as the business aspects of the music industry began to supersede aesthetic presentation, the exchange of talent among labels increasingly became driven by commercial aspirations, and as a result, the more recent outings that are littered with guest appearances sound soulless and forced. For proof, look no further than Santana’s current project All that I Am or any of the countless tribute collections that serve little purpose other than to revive flailing careers or jump-start new ones.
While the lo-fi realm of indie rock has churned out more than its share of exceedingly dull drivel, it also has revived the notions that the creation of art need not happen in an insular world and that it frequently fares better when it is interactively assembled in an organic fashion. Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes (not to mention his Saddle Creek label) is a prime example of how a little competition and cooperation among friends can help to transform a project into something bigger, a concept to which Devendra Banhart subscribes on his fourth effort Cripple Crow. Not only is the collection’s cover an obvious homage to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but the manner in which his songs envelop his collaborators — which include Pernice Brother and co-producer Thom Monohan, Vetiver’s Andy Cabic, and Pleased’s Noah Georgeson — rather than highlight their presence, is remarkably refreshing. Naturally, all of this would be meaningless if the music inside didn’t exude an earthy originality that allowed it to stand on its own merit.
Known for the grainy, primitivism of his alt-folk musings — his debut Oh Me Oh My... famously was pieced together from recordings captured on an array of cassette and answering machines — Banhart ventured into a proper studio to sculpt Cripple Crow. Consequently, the result is more realized and accessible than any of his past endeavors. With a compositional style that draws liberally from Donovan’s flower-child meditations and a voice that softly caresses each song while borrowing heavily from the quaint quavering of Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake, Banhart lays down a dreamy, acid-tinged flashback of strange, poetic beauty. On the opening Now that I Know, for example, he cops Buckley’s Robert Plant-isms perfectly, while on Lazy Butterfly, he embraces the mysterious, Eastern mysticism of Donovan’s psychedelic etchings. Nevertheless, the other problem that frequently plagues indie projects — that is the lack of any semblance of self-control — raises its ugly head on the outing, and unfortunately, it keeps a good album from becoming a great one. At 22 tracks that stretch the effort to more than 74-minutes in length — in ’70s terms, it’s a sprawling, double-LP set — Cripple Creek lacks focus as well as a cohesive identity, though buried inside its scattered eclecticism lies a true gem, and Banhart nearly succeeds in making it transcend its flaws. ˝
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box