aural pleasure

The biggest problem with being part of a “scene” is that eventually the outside air no longer gets through. You either begin believing your own hype or your weirdest idiosyncrasies get far too much encouragement. Devendra Banhart, the Texas-to-Venezuela-to-San Francisco pied piper troubadour of the “freaky folk” scene of the 2000s, was already an eclectic weirdo when he first started putting ideas to tape. His voracious musical appetite in this age of unlimited access means he can obsess on obscure Joe Boyd-produced songwriter Vashti Bunyan (with whom he’s worked) and the late Karen Dalton as easily as on the Clash; his albums, therefore, always have a loose focus that sounds as if he’s skipped right over to completing Sides 5 and 6 of Sandinista!

I had the luxury of spending a few hours at Bearsville Studios in upstate New York back in 2005 while Banhart recorded his previous album, Cripple Crow with Pernice Brothers’ Thom Monahan at the production desk. People came and went throughout the day and joined in, jamboree style. Not so much a recording date as a stealth party that showed no sign of abating. Devendra recorded enough for several albums, and figuring out when the tracks were actually completed seemed to be the most difficult task at hand. You can always use more handclaps, after all.

His latest album, Smokey Rolls, is recorded with his good friend and co-conspirator Noel Georgeson, and it smacks of more first-thought, only-thought. Banhart’s developing into one bizarre singer, sounding Spanish even when he’s singing in English, using unusual phrasings and odd tonalities to alter the outcome. He reminds me of For Little Ones-era Donovan, when Dono decided to sing for children. Only problem is this guy needs more pop, less Tim Buckley-like weirdness. Otherwise, he’s going to scare everyone away.

— Rob O’Connor

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Chaka Khan is an R&B icon and a major influence on singers ranging from Mary J. Blige to Whitney Houston, but there’s always been a hint of disappointment about her career.

Maybe it stems from the impossibly high expectations of those who first heard her as a precocious Chicago teenager and were instantly convinced she’d be the next Aretha Franklin.

Like Franklin, Khan possesses a voracious musical curiosity, mind-bending pipes, gospel-derived expressiveness, and a weakness for pop cheese (Aretha’s cover of Bread’s “Make It With You”; Chaka’s duet with Kenny G on Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”). But for all her virtuosity and charisma, Khan’s recording career has been way too erratic for any but the most devoted to follow.

Perhaps sensing that she might be able to generate some of the same back-to-roots buzz that greeted recent albums by Bettye LaVette and Mavis Staples, Khan united with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for a self-conscious return to her glory days with Rufus (she even includes a medley of the Rufus standards “Pack’d My Bags/You Got the Love”). It’s no accident that this album’s opening line is: “Guess I grew up fast in Chi-town.”

Dee Dee Warwick’s desperate “Foolish Fool” is right in Khan’s wheelhouse and she swiftly knocks it out of the park with a bluesy, neo-soul treatment. Khan’s introspective ballad “Angel” is also a wonder, largely because of the way it allows her to weave around the melody with soulful ease.

The album falters slightly with ill-chosen covers of Prince’s “Sign ‘O’ The Times” (a good song that she adds nothing to) and Carly Simon’s “You Belong to Me” (a stiff duet with Michael McDonald). But it’s better exemplified by tracks such as “Disrespectful,” a wild shouter in which Khan and guest artist Mary J. Blige become almost indistinguishable. In a way, that vocal melding offers all the necessary proof of Khan’s impact on modern R&B.

— Gilbert Garcia

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