Rejoicing in the Hands
When Michael Gira's Young God label issued Devendra Banhart's glorious home-recorded debut, Oh Me Oh My, on an unsuspecting world, its gorgeous yet sparse primitivism, complete outsider lyric sensibilities, and infectious melodies grabbed hold of listeners all over the world. It offered them a bona fide fissure between popular and underground American culture. Banhart's aesthetic is no pose; his iconoclastic songwriting could not be farther away from officially sanctioned "alternative" music. However, given the unanticipated coverage and success of the album (by modest indie standards, folks, not those dictated by the biz), a quandary was presented in how to follow it up. Should his new songs -- and there were many -- be recorded in exactly the same way to preserve the notion of "authenticity?" Or should he not be penalized by having to adhere to the same economic realities, and be nurtured as the developing artist he is? Wisely, Gira and Banhart saw through the smokescreen what a word like "authentic" implies. Banhart's songs are the authentic outsider article even if he were to record them in Barry White's studio, so why punish for the sake of a media construct? Gira and Banhart chose a simple but very effective recording studio in engineer Lynn Bridges' house on the Georgia/Alabama border as their location, getting down 57 songs(!) and choosing 32 for two different albums from the treasure trove. Rejoicing in the Hands is the first of these albums -- another will be issued in the fall of 2004. Simply stated, it is a stunner, form start to finish. Banhart's Muse may be furiously active, but she is tender all the same. The sonic ambience on this disc is breathtaking. Gira and Banhart brought the master tapes back to Brooklyn for some minimal and tasteful overdubbing -- a guitar track here, a cello or trumpet there, a piano ghosting through the mix in another place, some spare drumming, hand percussion or vibes somewhere else. Over it all, though, is Banhart's reedy tenor and edgy, angular guitar playing with its hypnotic insistence carrying the tunes from deep in the interior of his image and sound world to the fore, where listeners can encounter and engage with them. Elements of blues, ragtime, Appalachian rural styles, country music, European and Celtic folk songs: all weave in and out of one another in a seamless yet crackling whole, each of them serving their role in articulating Banhart's sublimely prismatic, loopy vision. Singling out tracks or quoting from his words would amount to nothing more than sacrilege. This music is simply rendered, to be sure, but unspeakably profound and mercurial; it's funny, warm, heartbreaking, and evocative of another place and time. There are glimpses here of Greil Marcus' "old weird America," the all-but-visible inner terrain that informed certain spiritual, social, and aesthetic elements in our culture. Banhart's music is utterly unselfconscious and poetic. Rejoicing in the Hands is a whole -- each song an inseparable part of an offering for listeners to be, quite literally, enchanted and even awed by.