Rejoicing in the Hands

Evil Sponge | Mr Pharmacist

A little Robert Johnson, a bit early Dylan, and a smidgen of Tiny Tim are in the mix

A bit of fate to mention before the review: A few months back, I was scrounging through the remaining CDs (lots of Celine Dion and not much else) of a closing record store, the only one with a decent used section in my deep South and very sleepy military town, when a guy noticed my Swans t-shirt. He said he’d just had Michael Gira produce a record by a weird folk singer at his studio. According to this guy, Gira drank like a fish while never seeming the slightest bit drunk and showed some real control freak tendencies, all the while exuding the sort of genius that withers the weak. My accoster mumbled something about the folk singer sounding sort of angelic and fragile. Well, if that wasn’t strange enough, I then received the very record he was talking about (I’m guessing) in the mail to review. Weird little world, I think.

On paper, it’s enough to make a well-thought person cringe: hippie-bred, early-twenty-something, gypsy eccentric writes self consciously weird little ditties and sings them accompanied mostly on an acoustic guitar. You can imagine the long line of Syd Barrett-lite wankers trailing off into the distance, with this guy the latest to front the line. Reality, it seems, is a very different bird indeed. Rejoicing in the Hands, Banhart’s second album (the first was a lo-fi deal recorded on a tape recorder in somebody else’s living room and it had to be somebody else’s ‘cause Banhart didn’t have a living room), is quite possibly a quiet masterpiece.

The album, issued on Young God Records, hits you in successive waves. First to be noticed is Banhart’s voice. It’s a quavering, vulnerable thing. Poised somewhere in the Mark Linkous/Wayne Coyne category of bruised sensitivity, his pipes don’t just produce sounds but feeling. Regardless of the actual lyrics (more on those later), there’s a sense of pain of the type of hurt one experiences just by being alive and a little too open to the world. It’s sort of a newborn kitten/ baby chick variety of too soft, and it carries with it the hope that something this fragile will be lucky and live. There’s a tightrope to be walked here, since terminal cuteness or tweedom can only be just around the corner. Yet, Banhart pulls off the balancing act. His voice sounds sincere not self conscious, and it seems honest and not an affectation. In fact, his voice effected this reviewer much the way Ornette Coleman’s saxophone did on first hearing as something distinct and profound, with a bit of the alien thrown in to keep you a bit on the outside.

The music hits next. Most tracks are just voice and guitar. The instrument sounds just as vulnerable as his voice, yet is also inventive and playful. There’s a soulful, funky quality in what is basically his rudimentary folk picking. Many of these tracks would demand interest simply as instrumentals. Accompaniment is sparse with a female voice here and the sound of strings there. It lends a melancholy and somehow orchestrative air to the proceedings. The production by Michael Gira gives it a latter-day Swans feel: sort of angelic, amorphous and slightly sinister. Yet the melodies and songwriting have an old blues or Americana feel: a little Robert Johnson, a bit early Dylan, and a smidgen of Tiny Tim are in the mix. Syd Barrett is also a touch point, as these deceptively simple songs have a fractured savant echo or two.

Then, it’s the lyrics that make an impression. There’s a childlike quality, as topics seem to revolve around the idiosyncratic and an almost insular perspective. There’s also a little mental ward babble which doesn’t come across forced or self conscious. It’s more of a stream-of-consciousness vibe, as if you were privy to the private thoughts of someone who didn’t know you were listening. Add to this the occasionally sensuous image or cracked metaphor and one is left with songs that seem meditations on something all of us know, but have yet to put words to.

Finally, a note on the sleeve artwork. Child like, folk art drawings, and lyrics jammed together like schizophrenic doodlings adorn the CD sleeve. This adds to the personal, idiosyncratic feel.

Still doesn’t sound like a quiet, minor little masterpiece? Give a listen and see. The ears of this reviewer are jaundiced and not a little diminished by time and feedback. Yet, at first, second, and even third listening, this album sings. In fact, it seems so new and unique that I was a little jealous of not seeing it coming, of having heard of Banhart before my fateful record store encounter. God bless Gira for giving Mr. Banhart wider exposure.