What Will We Be has a sunny, breezy feel with performances that evoke warm, lazy afternoons spent with good friends. The album is dominated by powerfully melodic, mid-tempo numbers played with relaxed expertise. But there's also ambitious stylistic range displayed with the inclusion of evanescent ballads like 'Meet Me At the Lookout Point,' the epic riff-rocker 'Rats' sprightly R&B flavored groovers on 'Baby,' and the sultry Latin-flavored stunner 'Brindo,' the Roxy-inspired '16th & Valencia Roxy Music' among other pleasant surprises.
Review by John Bush
Setting aside the grand orchestrations of Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, Devendra Banhart's What Will We Be is everything its predecessor was not: straight-forward, cleanly produced, consistently laid-back (to nearly Jack Johnson proportions), and free of ambition. Banhart enlists the same band as last time (Noah Georgeson, Greg Rogove, Luckey Remington, and Rodrigo Amarante), but hired production whiz Paul Butler, whose records with A Band of Bees are some of the most striking productions of the 2000s. The double-tracked vocals give the album the same air as Banhart's early four-track experiments, but there's no haunted quality, just an occasional hippie-dippie aside in his delivery. Recorded in Northern California, What Will We Be often has the same slacker sensibilities and scent of ocean breeze that Jack Johnson has made his name with (read: funky white-bread basslines and closely miked drums played with plenty of whisk). Banhart's persona emerges intact despite the mainstream sound, however, and What Will We Be becomes a pleasantly fresh album to follow the ponderous, sprawling Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. [A limited edition version was also released.]
Within one five-month span during 2004, Devendra Banhart-- a hirsute, multilingual, 23-year-old enigma with a wanderer's tale to tell and a sprawling, intriguing debut to his name-- released two 16-song albums: the near-flawless Rejoicing in the Hands and its less cohesive though memorable follow-up, Niño Rojo. He sang about human fragility and little yellow spiders, about old folk songs and with old folk singers, about the beauty of beards and the wealth of the world. With a versatile warble and a graceful touch to the guitar, Banhart seemed slightly manic yet strangely endearing, the rare eccentric who could turn the lightest of larks into irresistible bits of tunes. That winter, the magazine Harp likened him to Van Morrison, John Lennon, and Jeff Buckley, saying he possessed "a deeper connection to the cosmos than most of us share." By year's end, Banhart had emerged as the preeminent songwriter and personality of what was generally dubbed New Weird America, or freak-folk. He was bound, it seemed, for some bigger glory.
Banhart pursued that career in the most expected fashion: In 2005, he left Young God Records and Michael Gira, the small independent label and producer that had served as his guide, for XL, an international imprint of the label group that controls 4AD, Matador, and Rough Trade. Two subsequently guest-heavy records followed and looked to expand beyond those fundamental early works. Disjointed psychedelia concerned with seahorses, nothing tunes about Chinese children, smeared ballads about the war, the Beatles, and the slow burn of memory: Altogether inconsistent but often interesting, those albums seemed to find Banhart pursuing a global vernacular he'd yet to define. His audience grew, certainly, but, with these experiments, real fame still seemed beyond his grasp. He began dating a Hollywood starlet, hired Neil Young's manager, Elliot Roberts, and landed a big-time booking agent. A spotty supergroup with some friends and a New York rockstar followed, as did a bit role in a teenage romance and songs doled out to soundtracks and commercials. And, earlier this year, he signed to Reprise Records, home to Young, among many others-- a platform, it would seem, for that bigger glory.
So one might assume that now is the time for Banhart to complete that cliché ascendance-- to make a levelheaded album of straightforward songs that stands a chance of selling. Well, maybe next time...
At first glance, What Will We Be-- Banhart's sixth album and his first for Reprise-- does feel a bit like the kind of record that might break him to an audience on the right side of an FM dial or using WiFi at Starbucks. "16th & Valencia, Roxy Music", after all, is an agile, escapist folk-disco rave about "ridin' six white horses" and "free dancin'." "Rats" is a Led Zeppelin-baiting anthem with a midsection about, again, dancing, kissing, and general merriment. And from the bright-eyed opener "Can't Help But Smiling" through the whispered, pale country boogie of "Goin Back", the album's first quarter offers a rather sunny, upbeat initiation. Banhart's writing seems normalized, too: "Love is the only thing truly worth needing," he posits at one point. "Every kiss that we miss is another life we don't live," at another. Love, drinks, drugs, colloquialisms, creation myths: What Will We Be could be a great big common lawn for aged hippies, album-rock veterans, and college-rock kids alike.
But across its 14 tracks and 50 minutes, What Will We Be again sounds like Banhart's attempt to prove he can take risks and sound interesting without his acoustic guitar. A mess of scrambled styles that ostracizes more often than it charms, at least one-third of this record plays like a batch of covers cribbed from one of those Putamayo world-music collections at Whole Foods. "Angelika" veers left from its Brazilian-cum-bluegrass lilt to show it can samba and Banhart can twist and yowl in Spanish. "Foolin'" splices reggae with the Beatles and succeeds in sounding just slightly less milquetoast than Eric Clapton's turn at island music. Meanwhile, first single "Baby" gets goofy about romance (which makes you say "holy moly" and feel like a bow-tied kangaroo, apparently) over a flimsy highlife trot.
And every time Banhart lands something genuinely agreeable, he finds a way to hamstring it: "Walilamdzi", one of the most wistful tunes in Banhart's catalog, is a simple fingerpicked reverie. Sung in the mostly lost language of Northern California's Pit River Indians, though, it comes with an inherently off-putting defense. And it's not enough that "The First Song for B" is the latest in a series of sublime Banhart piano ballads. No, it meanders into the acoustic morass "The Last Song for B", where Banhart listlessly intones, "A movement/ Attunement/ A new dream/ Beyond dream." Who knew it was so easy to sound more vague than Akron/Family?
In 2004, Banhart sang, "It's like finding home in an old folk song/ That you've never ever heard/ Still you know every word/ And, for sure, you can sing along." And that's how those early records felt-- familiar yet foreign, as if Banhart had found and reshaped something we didn't know we'd lost. Favorable reviews of What Will We Be will likely toss off adjectives like multicultural or eclectic and epithets like polyglot or plunderer. "He's only exploring," they'll say. But Banhart's third album of unhinged stylistic exploration feels more like a reach than a quest-- a timid attempt to distract with a grab bag of forms rather than to engage any one idea with vigor and innovation. We're left with songs afraid to stake interesting artistic claims ("Goin Back" puts the Flying Burrito Brothers in an autoclave) or defend them (see the needlessly circuitous "Chin Chin & Muck Muck") for very long. More focused on offering Banhart's international and oddball bona fides than crafting songs that feel at all like home, What Will We Be finds Banhart in need of direction and editing. Or, as Banhart sings on that awful dance tune of his, "We don't know what to do." Here's hoping that, someday soon, he may figure it out.
— Grayson Currin, October 30, 2009