Liking Devendra Banhart means always readying some kind of apology for him—for misbegotten flutes, for songs about butterflies and little boys, for times when he strips down shirtless to play tambourine. Wincing at it all is part of the project, and much of Banhart's charm derives from the degree to which he mingles a sense of true conviction with a sense of being in on the game. Certainly no other artist embodies "freak folk" as much, or as knowingly.
On his fifth album, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, Banhart embraces his role as a poet and a jester in equal measure. 2005's Cripple Crow was no cohesive exercise, but it sounds measured next to Smokey, which jumps from samba to glam-rock without ever losing its folky grounding. The rocking parts are the real highlights: After five minutes of breathy calm, "Seahorse" opens up with a cocksure romp of guitars and drums, and "Tonada Yanomaminista" showcases Banhart as a rousing frontman to slot somewhere between The Psychedelic Furs and The Doors.
Every Banhart album has a slip, and Smokey's is a doozy: "Shabop Shalom," a largely spoken-word story about a boy "taking in the sweet and sensuous scent of hibiscus that languidly lilted along the summer breeze." Credit Banhart's slips to taking big steps, however, and he becomes hard to dismiss.