The simple challenges of Devendra Banhart

The Herald-Times | by David Coonce

His music comes from a place that is unbelievably pure

This week the Library of Congress announced that it had selected 50 recordings that would be preserved in order to start a national registry of important recordings. The list is impressive in breadth and quality, encompassing such diverse artists as Scott Joplin, Abbott and Costello, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. It is an ultimate one-stop list of all the important milestones in our nation's history, both musical and otherwise, and serves as a fascinating document of the last century, revealed through the myriad sounds captured on wax cylinders, reel-to-reel tapes, vinyl LPs and CDs.

If there was another of these lists published in 50 years, one Devendra Banhart might well be on it. His music comes from a place that is unbelievably pure, immune from any sort of music scene. It is some of the most honest music that you'll ever hear, and literally sounds as if it could have come from any time, any place.

Devendra Banhart is a 21-year-old New-Yorker-by-way-of-Texas whose new album, Oh Me Oh My … is a staggering work of unstable brilliance. Banhart sings and plays guitar over 22 compelling songs, some of them long, fully fleshed-out compositions and others merely sketches, glimpses into Banhart's unique - and occasionally unsettling - mind. The songs are open, sparse and lonesome and feature, mostly, just Banhart and his finger-picked guitar. He creates instantly memorable, if occasionally off-kilter melodies and sings over them in a unique voice that stands alone in the rock canon.

Honestly, the closest comparison might be Tiny Tim, but Banhart is a serious artist, and his high-pitched, double tracked vocals soothe rather than irritate.

The songs are simple, but intelligent, and Banhart's guitar playing is occasionally evocative of Nick Drake or even Fred Neil. His lyrics operate on a subliminal, symbolist level, stringing together series of phrases, imagery and emotions to create scenes that are at times pastoral and elegant, and at other times claustrophobic and disturbing. The album was named "Underground Record of the Year" by the New York Times, and Banhart was recently featured in Mojo, Rolling Stone and Spin, proving that somehow, in this world of synthesized pop stars, some people still understand the work of a creative, challenging artist.