DEVENDRA BANHART | REVIEW'Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs,' and That's Not All
When you first hear Devendra Banhart's high, braying voice, you may be tempted to laugh: the two words that spring to mind are "tiptoe" and "tulips."
It's hard to say whether Mr. Banhart would be pleased to hear himself compared to Tiny Tim. But in any case, his music is too compelling and too weird to be merely a put-on.
On Sunday he played a short, intriguing set at Tonic, sitting cross-legged on the stage with an acoustic guitar in his lap, singing about a world in which animals and plants act out mysterious allegories.
Mr. Banhart, 21, just released his excellent debut album, "Oh Me Oh My . . . The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit" (Young God). He tends toward verbosity, but many of his songs last little more than a minute, just long enough for him to sketch an image.
On Sunday he was joined by Will Lemon, who sometimes played harmonica and sometimes percussion, although his only rhythm instrument was a container of roasted soybeans. Mr. Banhart usually picked broken chords on his guitar, sometimes strumming when the songs grew more forceful.
Near the beginning of the set he played "Michigan State," one of his longest and most memorable songs. At the beginning there was barely any music, just Mr. Banhart's tentative voice: "My friend has my favorite teeth/They bend backwards when she breathes/And it whistles."
By the time the first chorus arrived, the narrator was no longer a mere observer. The delicate introduction gave way to a more insistent two-chord pattern, and Mr. Banhart's voice got louder and plainer in the refrain, an unusual lyric of desire: "Oh, Michigan, Michigan state, how I'd love to live in you." In Mr. Banhart's anthropomorphic world, states have just as much personality as teeth, or dogs.
The second verse of "Michigan State" is a series of not-quite-logical propositions.
With each flight of fancy, his voice grew more urgent, which created the impression that he was rushing toward a momentous conclusion: "The salt keeps the sea from feeling heat/And my toes have my favorite feet/If I sweat salt and the earth sweats heat. . . ."
Mr. Banhart's voice trailed off, as if he were overwhelmed by the possibilities, and then he sang the chorus again.