Davendra Banhart | Oh Me Oh My | ReviewnaÃ¯ve originality, as if he'd just never heard the way everybody else plays music
If he were anything but a 21-year-old former art student living in Williamsburg, Devandara Banhart would probably be relegated to that musical Island of Misfit Toys called "Outsider Music" (joining curiosities such as Daniel Johnston, Tiny Tim and the Shaggs). Banhart has Outsider Music's endearing eccentricity and naÃ¯ve originality, as if he'd just never heard the way everybody else plays music.
Banhart's debut album - the unwieldily titled "Oh Me Oh My.The Way The Day Goes By the Sun is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit" released in late October - was recorded on borrowed four- track cassette recorders, giving it a charming, lo-fi quirkiness. His only instrument is an acoustic guitar; percussion consists of finger snaps and handclaps. A faint hiss of tape can be heard behind the music, just like in the old Alan Lomax Blues field recordings.
The songs are simple too, though not simpleminded. "Make It Easier" consists mostly of the line "It's cold outside, we should come inside" sung as a kind of one-man round. On "Cosmos and Demos" the verses have the cadence of a schoolyard rhyme - "I've never told this story to another living soul / for fear it might awaken and the story would unfold / candles in a courtyard and a paper colored cat / while demos danced on feathers and cosmos held the hat." - but pile up to become an incantation.
The most startling aspect of his music is his voice. When I first heard it, I thought the power on my CD player had faltered, or that somehow the RPM setting was off (not that it even has such a feature). He sounds genderless and fierce, like Billie Holiday delivering the last scathing lines of "Strange Fruit". His high, warbling falsetto on the song "Nice People." is genuinely disturbing.
This would hardly seem like a recipe for popular appeal, but despite - or, more likely, because of - his many quirks, Banhart is riding a groundswell of support. He's received gushing coverage in Britain's influential Mojo magazine, and recently claimed the number one spot on WFMU, the standard bearer for non-commercial radio. Spin, the Los Angeles Times, and even Jane are planning coverage, according to his publicist.
Banhart will play two shows in New York in the coming weeks. They may be your last chance to see him in intimate, small-club surroundings (surely the best for this kind of show), as this outsider may not remain one for long.
Devendra Banhart will perform December 22nd at Tonic (107 Norfolk Street between Delancey and Rivington, 212-358-7501) and January 3rd at Pete's Candy Store (709 Lorimer St., Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 718-302-3770).