See, I’m still not done with my run of psychedelic folk music. Devendra Banhart is no substitute for the pleasures of Tyrannosaurus Rex, but then, nothing is, and the psychedelic pool is not easily refilled. I’ve been listening to Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon a lot lately, hence the flood of deep cuts, and it casts a nice spell, not least because it’s frequently not sung in English. A sustained sense of atmosphere is an underrated quality in a record, one that not enough artists shoot for, given that those who do often get called boring. But there’s a difference between consistency and repetition. Consistency means you can put on a record and be confident that your mood will be lifted and sustained for 72-or-however-many minutes.
Get outta here with your songs about seahorses, Devendra Banhart, go back to 1968 where you belong. Banhart very often sounds like he’s channeling the spirit of 60’s psychedelic folk music. Imagine peak Donovan, with more Latin flair. Which is not at all a drag. 60’s psychedelic folk is one movement that yearns for a full revival. We really could use more idealism and gentle fantasy in our pop culture right now. We need more songs about seahorses and wonderful things. We need pop stars who see the world as glittering and full of magic. We need some fucking whimsy over here, please.
I worry a lot about that phenomenon where the brain, after reaching a certain age, loses the ability to enjoy new things. I’m in my mid-thirties and it seems like only a matter of time before everything I haven’t heard, seen or tasted before appears to be garbage. So when I do become fascinated by something new, I feel very pleased with myself. Look, I only first heard Interpol a few years ago, and they’ve quickly become a band that I can happily listen to all day. They’re gone from nonentity to major favorite and I post about them all the time. It’s like a blossoming romance! Without any of the inevitable downsides! You can now point out that the only reason that my aging brain has allowed me to enjoy this music is because it’s reminiscent of things I already know and like. This is true. Interpol falls squarely into a category of the familiar. In fact, they’re everything I’ve always loved and can’t get enough of; dark, moody, jangly, wordy, atmospheric rock music made by men who look good smoking. I like it because I’m already primed to like it. And I’m okay with that.
Organ music is very underutilized in the world of rock’n’roll. Nothing brings a sense of portent to the proceedings like a good organ intro. And if it’s followed by a gospel choir – that’s a recipe for perfection. Why that’s not the formula for every hit pop song on the charts, I don’t know. (I do know: pop charts, and the songs on them, are stupid.) If you haven’t guessed, I freaking love it when someone takes takes unexpected elements from very unhip corners of the music world and uses them to their own weird ends. It’s diversification in action! So we of course have a Devendra Banhart song to listen to today, because he is a modern master of the weird and unexpected, and when he brings in that gospel choir there’s not a dry seat in the church.
A while back I made the executive decision not to feature songs that aren’t written in English, for grammatical reasons, mostly. It’s my rule and it’s made to be broken, and I have broken it many times. Especially when dealing with artists who swing easily between languages and cultures, as Devendra Banhart does. Banhart does some of his best work in Portuguese, and feels equally at home with Latin American rhythms as he does the American pop idiom, maybe more so. In fact, he makes the American pop idiom look laughably limited and one-dimensional, which it very much is. And eccentricity, of course, cuts across language barriers: a fellow eccentric recognizes a kindred spirit from across the world.
I really, really love songs about hard living. They give me something to aspire to! Not everybody can live the highs and lows of rock stars, because most of us don’t have the drug budget to disappear into a never-ending bender, but we can have a taste of it for a weekend, if we’re brave enough. Apparently, though, according to real legit research, most people don’t even bother; not everybody even partakes in the heavenly nectar of fermented grains and vegetables (huh?) and waking up with chemical burns all over your epiglottis because what you inhaled last night turned out to not be cocaine is far from a universal experience (double huh?). Turns out Nancy Reagan’s hard work paid off after all! Recreational drug use among young people is at an all time low, according to social anthropologists who’ve dedicated their lives to studying the ways of the Millennials. (Never mind that right now heroin is the Acai smoothie of the working class.) It’s ironic that our permissive godless secular capitalist society has somehow led to a generation that’s collectively doing less dumb shit than the previous ones. Less drugs, more social activism, less teenage pregnancy, higher literacy rates, etc. But that still leaves precious little to relate to for those of us who consider all-night benders as normal as going to the grocery store. It’s like the more society changes the more it still frowns on killing brain cells as a lifestyle option. Perhaps visiting altered states is best left to people who have something to gain from it; the artists and musicians and poets and visionaries. People whose job is to explore and to suffer and to kill brain cells and to tell something useful or entertaining about it.
I think this is an excellent segue from yesterday, and it’s very on point. Lucinda Williams is always on point writing about love, from her position as a woman who has lived through some serious ups and downs, who has loved many troubled souls and watched them not make it, who didn’t find her personal and professional rewards until she was well over the expiration date that women are usually given for finding those things. From that vantage point she asks, what do we need and expect men to really do for us? And what can lovers ever really do for each other, in the end? What gaping existential void are we asking our mere mortal partners to fill for us? I remember a comment from someone – a poet – that the needs we expect our romantic partners to fill are the same ones that we used to fill with religion. We expect guidance and fulfillment and unconditional love and sacrifice and an ear and a shoulder and a heart to cry to, and the other person inevitably comes up short, because they’re also asking for those things. No wonder so many people would rather burn the world than accept living in a secular society. But regardless if you’re clinging to religious ceremony for comfort or putting all of your emotional eggs in the monogamous long-term relationship basket, those things are still a substitute for the hard work of finding fulfillment within yourself, and there’s no easy shortcut to that. Love and religion can help, or they can hinder you, but you still have got to learn to live with yourself.