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Devendra Banhart, Oh Me Oh My...

New York Observer | by Joe Hooper

Mr. Banhart’s cult status seems pretty well assured

When it comes to divas, agit-prop or otherwise, sometimes geography just raises more questions than it answers. Take the case of Devendra Banhart, a 21-year-old folk singer (I guess you’d call him) who was raised in Texas and moved with his family to Caracas, Venezuela, where, as he writes in his one-page biography, "everything’s fucked, but I love my grandmother, whom [sic] fed whiskey to me from her pinky, paid me to touch my earlobes, and let me pull her elbow flab." He wound up in a squat in New York, he says, where he came to the attention of former Swan Michael Gira’s indie-rock label, Young God Records. Mr. Gira listened to his demo tape and rushed it into production, cosmetically unretouched, as Mr. Banhart’s late October debut album, Oh Me Oh My …

Walter Benjamin famously opined, "That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art." In Mr. Banhart’s case, his crude overdubbing on a barely functional four-track is indistinguishable from his "art naïf" persona. His songs are surrealistic one- or two-minute vignettes rendered by a single guitar and a choir of not entirely in-sync warbly tenors (the overdubbing) which at unpredictable moments will shift into a highly unsettling falsetto wail. On the new album a variety of subjects are covered, among them romance ("I know nature is beside me when he’s inside you, I feel it too"), on several occasions teeth ("Lost in the dark, lend me your teeth") and, for some reason, Michigan ("Oh, Michigan State, how I wanna live in you").

Mr. Banhart’s young career does raise the question of intentionality and self-consciousness and other subjects worthy of the next Charming Hostess album. Personally, I have no idea whether his sound comes from the open spaces and oil fumes of Texas and Venezuela or a close study of the indigenous grotesque in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and I don’t much care. The kid’s got a sound, as Bob Evans might say. In any event, with a midnight gig Nov. 27 at Williamsburg’s BQE Lounge, a return engagement at Tonic in December and a profile in the works at The Wire, the prestigious British music magazine, Mr. Banhart’s cult status seems pretty well assured. And deserved. The world should make a place for the truly unusual…

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