SONIC REDUCER As changeable, transformative chameleon year ’09 draws to a close, El Niño flurries sweep out the past, and all present plunge into the hassle and hustle of the holidays, I'm looking for answers — signposts if not certainties. Like so many others, I'm poking at the tea leaves and searching for clues to elemental queries, laying out the cards and reading into the arcana, listening to the muses and studying the alchemy generated by that admixture of human breath, reverberating strings, and sounds that make the air shiver and shimmer.
Q: Who are you?
A: Bend an ear to the recent past: namely Devendra Banhart's What Will We Be (Warner Bros.), a release that likely never truly got its due. A lethally laid-back hybrid of ragged ragtime, weird new blues, and soak-in-the-rays beach music perfect for lounging in the hot sand, What Will We Be struck me at first as almost too amorphous, soft and shapeless, languorous and borderless to get a grip on. It's as if Banhart has made the sonic equivalent of a slippery-slidey alien sock monkey.
But listen to it loud with headphones or earplugs, and you find plenty of earthly details and many off-kilter digressions to love — and recognize, like those Renaissance Faire carousers who live in the flat below on "Chin Chin and Muck Muck," the young turks on the loose in "16th and Valencia, Roxy Music." You'll also discover a deep spiritual yearning (aphorisms and nuggets of wisdom stud the album) to break through the bounds of pop forms into something wholly else. Banhart has acquired some major industry projectors of late — Warner Bros., and Neil Young manager Elliot Roberts — but considering What Will We Be, a cunning, sprawling work that gently urges you to sink your feet into its mud and stay awhile, it's clear he's chosen a higher path.
Q: What do you want?
A: Parse "What Would I Want? Sky" and the petite, avidly recycling footprints of Animal Collective on the new five-track EP, Fall Be Kind (Domino), out digitally last week and physically Dec. 15. Marking the first time the Grateful Dead have ever licensed a sample — the exquisitely sweet, polyrhythmically complex "Unbroken Chain" — "What Would I Want? Sky" artfully entwines Animal Collective's flirtations with dance music, washes of choral color, and a snippet of Phil Lesh's tweaked "sky" cry.
The Dead's blissed-out ode to the threads connecting the singer and the song of the western wind, lilac rain, and willow sky grows fresh, forceful tendrils and takes on new contours as Animal Collective chooses one beat (a levitating one) and one natural image and follows it. "Oh, grass is clinking/and new order's blinking/and I should be footing/but I'm weighted by thinking," goes the call to the natural world, as synthetic violins ripple like blades of grass. The woods of would-be "would"s and clanging metal percussion fall away, and the thicket of vocals unifies into a declarative, "What I want: Sky!" Just one gem among many within this a sparkling end-of-the-year grab bag.
Q: What shall we do?
A: We shall have a "Funky Funky Christmas," according to Electric Jungle on In the Christmas Groove (Strut), a comp of rare soul, funk, and blues tracks. Bumping the brass and the organ vamp like the holiday party in some lost Blaxploitation flick of your dreams, "Funky Funky Christmas" pays tribute to mommy fixing food and daddy watching football, along with, oh, yeah, love and peace ("Pass that biscuits please").
Gimme a piece of the shit-hot harp ’n' bass interplay of In the Christmas Groove's Jimmy Reed opener, "Christmas Present Blues," and the locked-down rhythm section, background screams, and jittery, shopping-damaged guitar solo of Funk Machine's "Soul Santa" ("Wouldn't it be so revealing if Santa had black janky hair?" the Machine asks).