Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Seperating the Stefs from the Sloths

it would have been great to call him out on his sarcastic bullshit and force him to answer a question

I know Pitchperfect waved off from reviewing Banhart’s latest CD, but the latest feature from Brent DiCrescenzo has beckoned me to step up to the plate.

The PFM review is close enough to my impressions of the record. I might shave off a half point for Banhart’s typical inconsistency. The tracks that are most similar to his previous records are the strongest – Koreandogwood, Lazy Butterfly and the title track all made the greatest impression on me. However, the tracks where he is just jamming with friends seem to be filler – Some People Ride the Wave, Chinese Children and Little Boys in particular seem unnecessary. Even the track that has the AlterNet crowd in paroxysms of delight, I Heard Somebody Say, isn’t quite up to par with the stronger material on the album. Sure, it’s repetitive piano line and chorus of voices give it a Beatles feel, but its melody and lyrics wouldn’t stand up against a George Harrison tune let alone one by Lennon/McCartney.

While Cripple Crow is a good but not exceptional record, Banhart has become the hub of a growing community of musicians exploring traditional folk styles. They’re not folk musicians in the sense that they have not learned their craft directly from masters of a certain tradition. Nor are they gatherers of songs studying traditional musicians. However, artists like Banhart, Akron/Family and others are exploring traditional forms and instrumentation, and modifying them in a very contemporary way. Cripple Crow is an essential document of that community’s current state.

My complaint is with Brent DiCresenzo’s feature about the Goonies, Banhart, Cat Power and Fiona Apple. Deceptively, DiCrescenzo commences his article with a lengthy comparison of various indie performers to the characters of Goonies. However, the target of is article are the “Stefs” – Chan Marshal and Fiona Apple - and the “Sloths” – amongst whom he counts Banhart.

DiCrescenzo raises a valid issue regarding Chan Marshall and Fiona Apple. Critics seem ready to mention these performer’s mental states as well as the musical abilities. To me, this stance diminishes women performers as too emotional, too fragile to focus. I’ve sat through a good part of a Cat Power performance and it’s unnerving - not in a deliberate way, but in watching Marshall struggle painfully in front of a crowd of strangers. However, some critics’ willingness to tie emotional fragility with femininity seems backwards.

Where DiCrescenzo errs is in his discussion of mental illness in rock performers. Mental illness is a broad set of ailments – like any major organ, the brain can succumb to mild, treatable ailments as well as dreadfully painful and debilitating illnesses. Whether you’re considering Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett, Daniel Johnston or Kristin Hersh, mental illness has been no stranger to rock music. There has always with a broad gray boundary between artistic inspiration and mental instability.

Based on a handful of lyrics and an NME article, DiCrescenzo floats off into speculation about Devendra Banhart’s state of mind based on obtuse references to pedophilia and Banhart’s eccentric behavior in interviews. Banhart has admitted that Little Boys is somewhat of throw off song; to me, it’s a throwaway attempt at controversy better left off the CD. The other lyrics cited by DiCrescenzo are so far out of context as to be laughable. The phrase “sweet young thing” is a sign of child abuse? DiCrescenzo stretches to make the case that Banhart is sheltering some secret abuse that explains his unusual lyrics along a couple of statements in interviews. I don’t draw similar conclusions from either Banhart’s lyrics or a passing quote in NME. Even if Banhart has painful secrets to deal with, who would expect him to share them with an interviewer from NME? As critics and fans, all we can really respond to is the music itself. Anything else is best left to the artist’s friends and family – just like any other health issue.

It’s revealing that DiCresenzo’s recent columns have not involved him talking to artists or reviewing performances – either live or recorded. Instead, they’ve involved convoluted internal jokes and strange pop culture references. With so many more substantial columns and features, I’m puzzled as to why PFM continues to give Brent DiCrescenzo space on their site.