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Devendra Banhart, Rejoicing In The Hands

Hybrid Magazine | by Justin Glanville

An Appalachian folk song? A rag? Delta blues?

In the booklet accompanying Devendra Banhart's Rejoicing in the Hands, ornately printed lyrics swirl around line drawings of birds and hands. The words themselves are nearly impossible to read, but they're beautiful and mysterious and occasionally a legible phrase pokes through the thicket: "Love is like golden corn." "Dogs they make up the dark." "I can take my little teeth out and show them a real good time."

Huh?

Never mind. Inscrutability is one of the chief pleasures of Banhart's music. It wafts by, working its delicate wiles, utterly baffling and yet always ringing vague bells. An Appalachian folk song? A rag? Delta blues?

Those genres all have a home on Rejoicing, just as they did on his heralded 2002 debut, Oh Me Oh My. But there's always something off-kilter about the presentation, whether it's erratic tempos ("Tit Smoking in the Temple of Artesan Mimicry," an instrumental) or unexpectedly syncopated melodies. That and his uniquely warbling tenor, nearly a soprano in places, are enough to save Banhart from being called a mere imitator.

And then there are those lyrics. Most often, you won't know what the man is singing about, just as you won't be able to read the lyric sheet. But as with the printed version, bits of poetry leap out, and they don't sound like anyone else (though James Mercer of The Shins, another surrealist, might be considered a brother in arms).

Not enough has been made of Banhart's guitar playing, which manages to be both spare and intricate at once, approaching the style- if not the virtuosity- of Nick Drake. Almost everything is finger-picked on what at times sounds like a classical guitar, a touch that adds to the disc's vintage feel.

Banhart's melodies are understated and immediately accessible, perhaps most noticeably on "This Is the Way" and "The Body Breaks," the latter of which has an unusually pretty chord progression. Judicious overdubs (piano, strings, harmony vocals) sound as if they were present from the start.

This batch of tunes come from a marathon recording session that produced somewhere between 30 and 50 songs. A second album from that session will be released in September.

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