September 30, 2004

Test Spin: Devendra Banhart

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Devendra Banhart has somehow become enormously successful this year, despite the fact that he plays an endearingly preposterous genre known as “dada-blues” that owes as much to Captain Beefheart and Syd Barrett as it does to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Odetta. Banhart’s latest album compiles the remaining songs from the same sessions that spawned this year’s Rejoicing in the Hands, and continues to mystify the listener with a vocal style that seems simultaneously gut-wrenchingly sincere and infuriatingly ironic. On the opener, “Wake Up, Little Sparrow,” Banhart dives into Ella Jenkins’ song over a brittle, clopping rhythm. His voice begins in goofy tremolos, passes through exuberance, and lands in parched exhaustion — all this often within the same word.

Like the last album, there are slight, unpretentious accents from brass, organs, and percussion. But the music remains a spotlight on Banhart’s voice and narratives. Revolving around the themes of home, integration, and wanderlust, Banhart’s lyrics are a collision of Beatrix Potter and the Mayan Book of the Dead, wrapped in African ritual and Dust Bowl lethargy. If this seems like an arbitrary collection of influences, it probably is. But with music this elegant and evocative, it hardly matters

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Red Letter Daze Editor