It's hard to tell what's most striking about Devendra Banhart—his songwriting or his persona. Both are wispy and mercurial in ways that make him a blank slate for the very idea of "freak folk." Both are simultaneously timely and anachronistic. Neither resists accusations of affectation, but neither can be written off as a small achievement, on any terms.
The distinction wouldn't matter much if Banhart's music didn't all but beg for it. After his hissy lo-fi debut, Oh Me Oh My…, pricked ears in 2002, Banhart put out two more albums, curated a well-timed scene-survey compilation (Golden Apples Of The Sun), sang backup for a ton of other artists, and assumed a beloved overlord status among legions of young folk fans with big beards and big record collections. Banhart's prolificacy is part of his appeal, but it also makes him frightfully hard to avoid, even for a few weeks. It also makes for some testy lulls on Cripple Crow, an album that flags in equally fruitful and frustrating ways.
At his best, Banhart is an arresting singer-songwriter who finds rarified form through simply picked guitar lines, swells of ecstatic quietude, and melodies that take on the strange tint of a voice all his own. At his worst, Banhart is a free spirit who roams too freely, making his more whimsical digressions and rough sketches embarrassing to sit through. Cripple Crow splits the difference during a 74-minute running time that leaves the strong songs as untethered as the weak ones. Disquieting highlights like "Now That I Know" and the title track sound as intimate and beautiful as folk music could ever hope to, but scattered foils—hokey singalongs, half-formed snippets of songs, whispered Spanish tunes with no bones—make the mood hard to maintain. A few charged rock songs make rousing use of clipped Stax electric guitar ("Long Haired Child," "Chinese Children"), but their energy diffuses as Banhart's need for an editor becomes too glaring to ignore.