But if anyone can get away with dressing like the Maharishi (complete with bindi) in 2005, it's Banhart, whose fourth album, Cripple Crow, fills 70-plus minutes with plaintive acoustic ditties, haunting doo-wop, and a shout-out or two to the Beatles (catch that Sgt. Pepper's-inspired cover, for starters). "The record, to me, feels like present-day South America and pre-Columbus North America," he says. "I structured the record around those themes." Indeed, Latin and Native American rhythms flourish.
Banhart's 2002 debut was about as structurally unwieldy as its title: Oh Me Oh My the Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit. But he focused and sharpened his songs, and by last year's follow-up, the spare and ghostly Rejoicing in the Hands, the 24-year-old Banhart had become one of his generation's best songwriters. Mere months after Hands, he released another CD, Nino Rojo, pulled from the same prolific sessions that yielded Hands.
More than 45 songs were recorded for Cripple Crow too (half of them made it onto the album). "It would be a very different record if we didn't have so many songs to try and tackle," he says. "That was a big lesson."
Unlike the sparse Hands, Cripple Crow piles on the instruments: Sitar, flute, and violin join in with the hand-played percussion and guitars. "The thinking was, let's keep the door open and invite everyone I know to play on the record," says Banhart. "We're into all these different types of things and making it our own."
Cripple Crow is freak-folk at its best. Songs like "Long Haired Child" and "Mama Wolf" are sure to please nature-loving hippies. And you get the impression that Banhart fancies himself the tree god who rules over them all. Or at least, that's what his songs let on. "There are songs that are very, very autobiographical," he admits.
Still, he's quick to point out that once in a while he'll adopt the voice of a character, lest folks get the wrong idea about songs like "Little Boys," in which Banhart squeals with glee, "I see so many little boys I want to marry." "I knew about four hermaphrodites in South America, growing up," he explains. "I was thinking about them when I wrote that song -- and what it's like to be them."
But don't expect Banhart to pull a Michael Jackson anytime soon. He really is the peace-loving, acoustic-guitar-strumming hippie he appears to be. "I don't subscribe to any single religion," he says. "My religion is the religion of love."