Rejoicing in the Hands | by Scott Reid

An accessible, yet strikingly original, songwriting talent

Unique voices are rare enough these days, let alone one that isn't violently painful to listen to. Sure, you've got your Shakiras and your Jamie Stewarts, pushing the boundaries of good taste with the force of a wrecking ball into our ears, and those are still, to be regrettably fair, rare in themselves; rarer still is to find a voice that stands out above an ocean of like-minded songwriters, one that doesn't require the range of a Tim Buckley or timbre of a Carl Wilson to get his songs across with a fair amount of conviction.

Though as you span genres the type of voice that seems to be co-opted changes (a few of the more obvious examples being the Vedder-esque hard rock voice, the smooth-as-ice R&B croon, nasally pop-punk sneer and the faux-Brit art-rock accent), the singer/songwriter genre has its own share of fake southern accents and barely audible whispers. When you pare your sound down to just a guitar and voice, you'd hope that at least one of these would stand out enough to keep their songs from becoming painfully boring. Needless to say, it's rarely the case.

But then you get an artist like Chan Marshall or, in this case, Devendra Banhart, who are able to keep their songs spatially bare while making it every bit as intriguing as a similar artist using all the bells & whistles. In Banhart's case, his delicate, quivering voice sounds utterly out of its time, a unique mixture of a shy male version of Billie Holiday, Nick Drake, a higher timbred Cat Stevens (to whom he also shares a slight physical resemblance at times) and, though I'm sure I'm the eight hundredth person to point this out, like a younger Daniel Johnston. For some, I'm sure, his mannerisms may seem like a little much at times, but even his more stubborn of detractors have a hard time arguing that it isn't drastically toned down from Oh Me Oh My to a negligible degree.

In many ways, Rejoicing In The Hands -- Banhart's second full length and first studio recording -- is this year's You Are Free, a powerful albeit slightly monotonous statement from a songwriter entering their prime, finally reaching a level of songwriting that is able to appositely match their vocal strengths. Though the two records rarely sound similar -- though a case can certainly be made for the gorgeous closer "Autumn's Child," which has a stunning Cat Power vibe -- they certainly share a common aesthetic, one which gives Rejoicing an incredibly warm and personal feel.

"This Is The Way" sets the tone for most of the record with Banhart's acoustic finger-picking, usually kept to simple, rhythmic repetitions (even despite a few flourishes where he proves himself a more than capable guitar player like on the instrumental "Tit Smoking In The Temple of Artisan Mimicry") and his distinctive vocals, ranging from Nick Drake-level quietness to theatrical and every stop in-between. "A Sight To Behold," "Poughkeepsie," "Fall," "This Beard Is For Siohban" (the closest the record gets to "upbeat") and "When The Sun Shone On Vetiver" (which features some beautiful slide guitar work) all add noticeably fuller arrangements to this template, though the results are just as desolate and moving as his most minimal compositions. Unlike many artists that use a transition into a studio setting as an excuse to embellish their songs with layers of needless and distracting extras, Banhart never once goes too far.

Not surprisingly, though, many of the most thrilling moments still come from the unadorned numbers. "Will Is My Friend" is one of the album's many three chord ballads that bears a downright haunting melody that is at once evocative and familiar, driven by his lyrics, as simple as they are effective: "This is the water in which we wade/ And this is our father / and this is how he strayed." Likewise, "The Body Breaks" is a clear highlight, Banhart's voice quietly breaking over the unassuming guitar line, continuing in his oddly romantic vein: "The body stays and then the body moves/ And I'd really not dwell on when yours will be gone/ But within the dark, there is a shine/ One tiny spark that's yours and mine." It's one of many subtly affecting moments that make Hands the kind of album that reveals itself over many listens, growing better which each listen.

It seems almost pointless to mull over the album's low points, since there are so few. "Poughkeepsie" does manage to induce the only cringe-worthy moment on Hands with his repeated shuttering of "viva" near the end, though even it is easy to swallow in the context of an otherwise excellent song and is actually quite tame compared to some of his previous vocal theatrics. To keep the latter half from succumbing to monotony (which it only briefly does), Banhart throws in a couple of the record's finest, like the percussion-heavy "Fall," the cleverly structured "Insect Eyes" and "Todo Los Dolores," the sole Spanish track in which Banhart stumbles on first try, only to laugh it off and immediately restart. Whether he kept the first bit to add to the record's off-the-cuff feel or not, it certainly does the job.

The startling part about it all being that this only constitutes part of what he recorded during these sessions; an untitled track also leaked around the same time as this record was announced and it stands amongst the best of this record and could very well be a part of his next, which, lucky for us, comes out later this year. Of course, it's impossible to know at this point whether he snagged the majority of the session's worthwhile cuts for Hands, leaving a hit-and-miss collection for the second release, but there is one thing we can be sure of: though his songwriting talent has never been in question (check out "Hey Miss Cane" from his debut), Rejoicing In The Hands is an effortless transition for Banhart from an obscure lo-fi artist to an accessible, yet strikingly original, songwriting talent. Let's hope he keeps this up.