Rejoicing in the Hands

Canned Magazine | by David Holmes

Mature beyond his years, yet marked by the energy and artistic bravery of youth

Devendra Banhart’s voice is truly otherworldly. Like his mentor and producer, the Swans’ Michael Gira, his vocals are alternately beautiful and disturbing, depending on the lyrical content of each song. Whether you call him a masculine Chan Marshall or a more tuneful, higher-pitched Dylan, Banhart’s strange quavering warbles add a fascinating dimension to his short, tasteful folk songs. And although he doesn’t necessarily break any new ground on Rejoicing in the Hands, it’s an essential release for any fan of soft, pretty folk music.
In 42 minutes, Banhart casually drops 16 songs with his incredible voice and impressive, often formless acoustic guitar-playing acting as the backbone of each track. A few of the songs are accompanied by minimal production which usually consists of little more than a light piano, an added acoustic guitar, and very rarely some strings or horns. But Banhart makes the most of this sparse instrumentation by carefully constructing each part to stand alone brilliantly and yet come together to make something even more than the sum of its parts. Take the title track for instance: at only one minute and 41 seconds, Banhart crafts one of the most beautiful songs on the record by mixing a simple, catchy acoustic guitar line with layered vocals imitating the guitar part. He then adds a xylophone hit on each beat and finally a falsetto vocal part that actually sounds like a horn to me on first listen. Banhart’s calculating ability to layer more and more instruments over the course of a song without ever distracting from the vocals or veering into excess is an endearing quality of Rejoicing. It’s a very subtle record, but it reveals its complexities on repeated listens so that the listener doesn’t know how he or she could have missed them the first time around.
My two other favorites, “This Beard is for Siobhan” and “Todo Les Dolores,” expose a sense of humor that is all too often missing from the genre. The first is a soft, absurd sing-a-long that eventually erupts into a gloriously fun climax of cacophonous drums, piano, and kazoo (!), but not before Banhart drops lines like “Because my teeth don’t bite, I can take them out and sing/ I could take my little teeth out and show them a real good time/ Tra la la la.” The second, “Todo Les Dolores” is not so much funny in its lyrical content as in its delivery. After a false start in which Banhart starts laughing for no apparent reason, he continues singing in Spanish with so much theatrical bravado that you can’t help but laughing yourself when he trills every “R” to the extr-r-r-r-reme.
Rejoicing in the Hands is the first of two albums Banhart will be releasing this year. The second one, due this fall, will contain 16 more songs from the same recording session. It’s refreshing to see someone so young and talented who is also exceedingly prolific break onto the scene. His strangely alluring mix of humor, poignancy, and catchiness should strike a chord in fans of soft indie pop. Mature beyond his years, yet marked by the energy and artistic bravery of youth, Devendra Banhart is on his way to becoming a beloved staple of the indie community.