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Rejoicing in the Hands (2004)

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Banhart's striking lyrical imagery

Rejoicing in the Hands by 23-year-old Devendra Banhart is probably the most perplexing singer-songwriter album I have heard in a long, long while (as such, it also makes a belated entrance into my list of favorite albums released in 2004). Even though it draws from genres and eras that are way behind us, Banhart's music has already become remarkably beloved among hipsters, as an exponent of the current neo-folk scene (also think Iron & Wine, Bonnie Prince Billie, Joanna Newsom, etc), which seemed to have blossomed since the (re-) discovery of Nick Drake's small but legendary output. A decade ago, indie kids listened to the ramshackle rock of Pavement, neo-psychedelic wizards Spriritualized or eternal favorite Sonic Youth, but nowadays the acoustic guitar, miniature songs and dreamy otherworldliness have become fashionable again. While that initially resulted in bands who managed to recreate the melancholy atmosphere or sparseness of Drake, Cat Stevens and any other depressed melancholic you can think of, but not the memorable songcraft (Quiet Is the New Loud, named after the Kings of Convenience-album, became an excuse for hollow albums that revelled in their own cute monotony), some of these newer artists have managed to come up with refreshing reinventions of a genre that makes its comeback once so often. Recorded under the guidance of Michael Gira (yes indeed, the leader of the creepy Swans), Rejoicing presents 16 of the 32 songs recorded during that particular session (the remaining tracks have in the meantime been released as Niño Rojo, which I haven't heard yet) and there's not one weak track to be found among them. There are a few traits that immediately set Banhart apart from the flock. First of all, there's that quivering voice that's been formed by digesting sources as diverse as country, blues, folk and rock (I'm just guessing), but also - and this makes it so interesting - early 20th century music, like Jelly Roll Morton-styled stomps, ragtime and early swing. The tremor in his voice shows eerie similarities to early jazz vocalists - I have never heard a folk artist come that close to Billie Holiday's unique style, for instance - while also the melodies he comes up with ("Poughkeepsie," "This Beard Is for Siobhan") are reminiscent of an era few contemporary artists seem to be familiar with. Most of these songs consistent of nothing but vocals and guitar picking - with the occasional addition of cinematic strings (the stunning "It's a Sight to Behold" is a wonderful slice of drama), piano (during the fragile album closer "Autumn's Child," where it replaces the guitar), and percussion with stand-up bass (the amusing swing of "Fall") - yet you never get the feeling the limited means at his disposal prevented him from creating an impressively diverse album. Many of his colleagues wallow too much in their own neologisms and smart-ass lyrics, but Banhart's striking lyrical imagery (which often seems random, indeed) is delivered with a sincerity that's simply to captivating to be considered a trick. Here's a singer-songwriter at work who finally managed to create a style of his own that merges tenderness ("Will Is My Friend" still leaves me breathless each time I hear it), surrealism ("See Saw") and nonsensical humour ("Todo Los Dolores") to fine results. With this batch of short songs (16 in 42 minutes) that constantly walk the thin line between something familiar and something that's almost ungraspable, Banhart has already convinced me he's one of the major talents of this era and with this impressive start (okay, there's one album before this one) and considering his age, I'm gonna watch out for his next endeavours. I'm not saying this has instant commercial appeal or that he'll woo every fan of folk music out there, but he definitely needs to be checked out. By you. Maybe the future looks bright after all.
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