Alright, let’s face it. Devendra Banhart is a bat-shit, nut-bird, howl at the moon, raving lunatic. But he’s also an incredibly talented musician and songwriter. And in the end, isn’t that delicate balance exactly what we love about him? Ever since I first heard Devendra nearly five years ago, I’ve been captivated. But the passage of that time has seen Banhart evolve / devolve into a merry hobnobbing celebrity prankster. Dalliances with Natalie Portman, hanging out with Gael Garcial Bernal and collaborating with various members of the Strokes have all been on Banhart’s agenda over the past few years. And through it all, his music has just become weirder.
Banhart’s latest side project, titled (for today at least) Megapuss, is a further progression of folky fun and lyrical lunacy that was ever present in his last release, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. Yet whereas tracks like Canyon’s “Shabop Shalom” were the odd ones out on that particular album, it and its off-kilter peers would nest comfortably in the oeuvre of Megapuss. If there’s comfort to be had from this apparent schizoid maneuver, there is plenty to be found. For one, we have another Banhart record, and in the same creatively frenzied hurry as his early releases rather than the seemingly endless time between Cripple Crow and Canyon. Furthermore, Banhart is still, despite his canoodling with the Hollywood elite, an independent soul. He does exactly what he wants, when he wants. In essence, the Megapuss version of Banhart is all four Beatles in one. Combine the absurdist humor of Ringo, the pop savvy of Paul, the gentle genius of John and the sobering meditations of George and you have this incarnation of Devendra Banhart.
Further proof of Banhart’s nuttiness is evident in his recent obsession with anatomical humor. On his most recent tour, the all-star band had its name changed several times including Vagina Burglars, Las Putas Locas, Stoner Boner, Spiritual Boner, Brain Taint and Love Fart. When debuting this collaboration with Greg Rogove (Tarantula A.D., Priestbird), he wore a belt of phalluses and projected naked pictures of himself on the wall. Yeah, the guy’s nuts, and we’re talking Gary Busey nuts. But none of that should detract from the joy of Surfing, the debut album from Megapuss. Sure, the titles of the songs might throw you off, but just realize that the titles were thought up first, and the actual music came later. That thought might make titles such as “Crop Circle Jerk ’94,” “Mister Meat (Hot Rejection)” and “Chicken Titz” a bit easier to handle, though I suppose that’s part of the fun.
All of the distractions aside, Surfing is a great album. The opener, that of the title “Crop Circle Jerk ’94,” finds itself at odds with its moniker, being a laid back and lovely folk piece, easing listeners into Banhart’s more familiar territory. Things are immediately changed up with “Duck People Duck Man,” a track that will remind most of Flight of the Conchords in more than one respect. First off, comedian Aziz Ansari, a guest on the New Zealanders’ show, provides the vocal; secondly, it houses hilarious lyrics in a `serious’ shell. There is nothing overtly funny about the music of “Duck People,” but when Ansari starts talking about duck stereotypes and eating hummus while Banhart croons “Duck people, duck people, duck man” in the background, you can’t help but smile. “Adam & Steve” finds Banhart, Rogove and Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti getting into a Santana groove as they intone lyrics such as “tropical taint, magical man.” Watch the video for even more laughs as the band of jackanapes parody videos by Right Said Fred and George Michael.
“Theme From Hollywood” is one of the most entertaining songs on the album. A hollowly recorded guitar meets a Donovan-like whimsicality as Moretti name-drops “Careless Whisper,” the group chants “what it is,” “too much fun in Hollywood,” and then they all meow the entire bridge. Too much fun in Hollywood, indeed. “Surfing” brings us back from the precipice of inanity, but not necessarily of insanity. The track is a pure head-trip, all harps, echoing vocals and surrealist lyrics. This is a Brian Wilson fever dream set in a transplanted ’60s era Coen Brothers film. “Mister Meat (Hot Rejection)” seems to channel Frank Zappa in its short, 25-second lifespan. “A Gun on His Hip and a Rose on His Chest” is a protest song in ’50s garb that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Five years ago, Banhart may not have been able to express these sentiments without getting heavy-handed, but in this incarnation, lightheartedness is the order of the day and the messages are as non-PC (or ironic) as you can get. After all, when you say, “Fuck homophobes in their assholes,” you simply can’t take it seriously.
“Chicken Titz” continues with the ’50s doo-wop, and also with the silly lyrical genomes. Again, one is reminded of Flight of the Conchords. Not since that great show and CD have I heard such a dichotomy between lyrics and music. While one is off the charts nutty, the other perfectly mimics a specific genre. I imagine this is the song that would have been played by Marty McFly at the end of Back to the Future had he been played by the absurdist Crispin Glover instead of everyman Michael J. Fox. “Another Mother” closes out the album as delicately as it began, with ukulele, ethereal vocals and delicate piano strains, proving that the album is as serious as it is fun and games.
Megapuss shouldn’t just be dismissed as a Devendra Banhart side project clusterfuck. Sure, it’s partly that, which is in turn part of the joy, but it’s also a creative collaboration with a myriad of talented people. Rogove co-wrote the songs with Banhart during his last tour, and is just as much a part of Megapuss as his bearded near-doppelganger. After all, the cover of the album looks like some kind of crazy `naked hippie vs. self’ melee, a kind of “when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you.” But Fabrizio Moretti, Noah Georgeson, Thom Monahan and more than half a dozen others contributed to this glorious goofery. Back in the ’60s, serious and solemn folk eventually gave way to psychedelia and excess, and in a way, Banhart is recreating his own ’60s trajectory. I was never one of those people who felt like they would have had fun in the ’60s, but I’m sure enjoying Banhart’s bat-shit world.