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Few songwriters become tethered to a genre the way Devendra Banhart has become tied to the somewhat nebulous tag of “freak folk” since his 2002 debut Oh Me Oh My… Over five records in just as many years, Banhart epitomized the ragged poesy and acoustic overtures of the scene he shared with kinsfolk like Joanna Newsom and Jana Hunter. What set Banhart apart from (and arguably in a class above) his peers has been his dexterity around the guitar and a nimble, almost innocently mischievous vocal delivery, both of which underscore his fanciful lyricism. His presence behind the microphone is truly an iconic one, his songs unmistakably his own. All of which make Banhart’s upcoming transition to a major label (Warner Bros., his first venture outside the indie cocoon) that much more interesting. On October 27th, he will release What Will We Be, a record sure to raise eyebrows from longtime fans and newcomers alike.
The first communiqué from What Will We Be is “Baby,” a three minute track much more firmly rooted in rock ‘n roll traditions than any of Banhart’s previous work. Even the title, that time-tested, platitudinal love song term of endearment, smacks of something suspiciously reserved. However, as even the most ardent Banhart loyalist must admit, the artist’s oeuvre traces an unfettered arc from the lo-fi romance of his first recordings toward a more expansive sonic palette. In that regard, “Baby” does not represent the watering down of a musician ditching his independent past so much as it is illustrative of an artist continuing to broaden his horizons.
All of this purist quibbling aside, “Baby” remains a compelling listen rife with Banhart’s endearing vocal presence. His hallmark guitar plucking underscores the ideas throughout, providing a bouncy, gay lightness. During the first chorus, Banhart sings, “Travelin’ by choo-choo train,” the sort of line few male vocalists would dare utter. Not only does he pull it off, but he makes you a believer by punctuating it with some background ‘ooohs’ that maybe, just maybe, evoke that very same train. There is no doubt that “Baby” is lighter fare than much of Banhart’s back catalog, but as with truly talented artists such as Beck or Yo La Tengo, he handles the task with such finesse that any charges of dilettantism just don’t stick.