On “Cripple Crow,” his fourth album, freak-folk frontman Devendra Banhart’s sound explodes beyond his trademark warbling vocals, loud guitar picking and subtle background accompaniment. These 22 songs display a surprising array of influences, drawn not only from ’70s American folk, but also southern rock, British folk-rock, even soul. And yet this expansiveness ultimately undermines the album’s vision. Banhart’s distinctiveness fades and his coherence slips: “Crow,” his most diverse work, becomes his most unwieldy and weakest.
The best tracks on the album beg for immediate and repeated listens. “I Feel Just Like a Child” is an inspired folk-jam, combining energy, joy and whimsy like Electric Mayhem (the shaggy-haired band from “The Muppet Show”) covering Dylan and the Band’s “Basement Tapes.” Here, the crowd of Banhart’s collaborators (pictured all together, “Sgt. Pepper” style, on the album’s cover) comes together as a subtle but strong community.
“Chinese Children,” which comes much later in the album, approaches the greatness of “Child.” Banhart swaggers with the vaudevillian charm of The Kinks at their alcohol-fueled best. He adapts so naturally to the musicians behind him, nicknamed the Hairy Fairies, that one can only wonder why the folkie didn’t use electric guitars and drums before.
The album’s title track is completely different in tone from these two, but no less well composed. Little more than Banhart strumming a guitar, “Cripple Crow” is a political folk song — in the early ’60s, it would have been pegged with the awkward label “topical” — but it avoids the heavy-handedness that could have made it hard to digest. By the time voices come in to harmonize with Banhart at the end of the song, the community vibe becomes almost visceral, lending intangible support to Banhart’s call for nonviolence.
But Banhart’s expanding set of aspirations and inspirations becomes tedious. In a smaller dose, it would’ve been the album’s greatest asset, but Banhart reaches beyond his capacity. The two separate halves of “Little Boys” each sound like Sam Cooke songs (“Only Sixteen” and “Wonderful World”). The slow-footed first half is frankly boring compared to the second, and not simply because the latter has a quicker tempo. As a whole, the song is more soulful than even the most gospel-infused highlights from 2004’s wonderful “Nino Rojo,” yet Banhart can’t make it his own.
Most other tracks on “Crow” suffer from the same sad malady. With its weepy strings and melancholic acoustic guitar, “Korean Dogwood” sounds like a half-realized cover of a Nick Drake B-side.
Things get only worse, and eventually Banhart sounds like he’s half-heartedly repeating himself: “Heard Somebody Say” comes off as a lesser version of “Cripple Crow,” while “Long Haired Child” takes the driving percussion from “I Feel Just Like a Child” and forgets the energy.
Many of the album’s tracks are much longer than Banhart’s previous songs — and, likewise, “Crow” is a behemoth compared to his earlier records. The album’s essential paradox is that, despite these excesses, its vision remains unrealized. Or, to be more critical, the songs seem unfinished. “Cripple Crow” sounds like a collection of off-takes and rarities — some of them are excellent, but most of them are sadly forgettable.
One such offense is Track 10, impiously titled “The Beatles.” It opens with a sing-song announcement: “Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are the only Beatles in the world.” It gets worse from there: Banhart goes into flamenco-like Spanish, which he uses with much more subtly elsewhere (“Luna de Margarita”). That dissolves into cloying gibberish over guitar chords, and, by the end of the recording, little is left but studio banter.
“Dragonflys,” a sweet and ephemeral call-and-response with Bianca Casady of cult-favorite Cocorosie, is a like-minded track, and would be lovely if it weren’t so disappointingly short. Meanwhile, some of the longer tracks (“Lazy Butterfly,” “Inaniel”) feel two times too long. Even “Hey Mama Wolf,” which would otherwise be a great track, is saddled with the kind of outro that can only end an album (but of course it’s half-way through this one). A similar disconnect hurts the beautiful semi-autobiographical opener, “Now That I Know,” which seems to introduce an entirely different album than the one that follows it.
“Cripple Crow” showcases some of Banhart’s finest song-writing — and the poorly-named Fairies can sound brilliant behind him — but the album is dragged down by quite a lot that wasn’t quite ready to pop out of the oven. The album sounds far more boring than it should, especially considering how much strong material is buried within it.