Devendra Banhart | OH ME OH MY... | ReviewHe possesses a warble I won't soon forget... and if that isn't the mark of a classic balladeer I don't know what is-- except that he can paint a wild picture of slow snails, cold snow, the Charles C. Leary, and very nice people. There are probably thousands of nomadic, dark troubadours who would stumble upon some surrealist notion of wisdom if given the time and the audience, but 21-year-old Devendra Banhart draws ellipses around more than mere romantic, hard travails and etched self-portraits. In short, he isn't your everyday, everyman's folk singer, though folk aficionados would do well to weird themselves out every once in awhile with his stuff.
Banhart's debut release for Michael Gira's Young God label is the work of someone presumably half-awake to conventions like "professional recordings" but fully aware of his own idiosyncrasies even as he performs without much trace of pretension or self-conscious nuance. The music on Oh Me Oh My is rarely more than an uncluttered combination of his unorthodox acoustic guitar pickings, more than a little tape hiss, and his immediately recognizable tenor. Banhart's voice might be a cross of Tim Buckley's flutter, Marc Bolan's timbre, and Tiny Tim's vibrato, but I would be hard pressed to claim he was imitating anyone. Similarly, his songs hit like sea chanteys started by Syd Barrett and then left mysteriously half-finished. In some cases, this is frustrating, but for the most part it seems bizarrely fitting.
Banhart does share a link with traditional minstrels in the instances he opts for epic tragedy. "Soon Is Good", one of the longer tracks here (the shortest being all of 39 seconds), could be about the buried pain of a lost love, though the typically half-nonsensical lyrics are tough to decipher. Fortunately, the solemn, but not quite melancholy, guitar figures are uplifting enough to support Banhart's odd mumble. Later, he drops lines like, "My toes have my favorite feet," in "Michigan State" over understated, optimistic guitar accompaniment, and somehow comes off like a weathered road-poet.
Elsewhere, the songs can range from whimsical to slightly crazed. "Lend Me Your Teeth" stops just short of being a novelty number, perhaps due to the fact that Banhart keeps his yelp in check for most of it-- only leaping into whistle-warble territory for a brief stretch. "Nice People" may be the spookiest song on the album, beginning with ominous strumming, only to explode into a chorus of witchy Devendras repeating "they certainly are nice people!" There are moments on Oh Me Oh My that seem as if I'm overhearing a private sketch rather than a performance. Over the course of the CD, that might translate to ambience for some and annoyance for others.
And the idea of a personal sketch might have been the idea all along: none of the music here was meant for release, but merely Banhart's collection of home and road tapings. It's possible that his voice would resonate more clearly with the aid of a good mic and decent mix, but that could very well detract from the considerable intimacy of his sound. If part of a folk singer's power comes from the purity of his conviction, then Banhart's promising debut is the sign of someone destined for great, strange things.