Devendra Banhart | OH ME OH MY... | Review | Justin Kownacki

seductively invites the listener to get under his skin

When you use only two instruments, one of them needs to be extremely noteworthy -- and in Banhart's case, his legend is and will be his voice. He seductively invites the listener to get under his skin, despite decreeing that we can never know him intimately, not more than he wants us to: this is the effect of Oh Me Oh My..., an album whose title is actually a poem similar to Fiona Apple's When the Pawn, but shorter and less surreal. Calculating, revealing just enough of himself to appear interesting -- even familiar -- without divulging enough to destroy the all-important enigma of a compulsive personality, Banhart creates his persona even as he pretends to deconstruct it. Sure, he'll allow us a glimpse into his head through clever turns of phrase and the occasional soul-rattling note (see the banshee effect of "Nice People"), but it's all an elaborate facade designed to engender a closeness that isn't there. By stripping away the conventions that reside in the delicate space between singer and listener, Banhart has naturally constructed new devices previously unconsidered, unnecessary, by slipping his voice into costume. Coy, deceptive, frank, conspiratorial, confidential -- you're never quite sure which stripe of the Cheshire Cat is coming next, making for an uneasy yet compelling listen.

I haven't heard anyone create more from simple songs. The lyrics are riddles, the tone grave, changing from playful to severe with the unpredictability of a scorpion's sting, keeping us on our toes throughout. When he confesses on "Cosmos and Demos", we want to believe we've shared a secret. When he suggests he's seen horrors in "Pumpkin Seeds", we respect him enough to refrain from asking the details. It's his dance; he leads and we follow. Like a codependent, who will burden you with his problems just enough to evoke sympathy, but never long enough to foster a bond, Banhart wants to develop the illusion of a close relationship that keeps us coming back again and again, to make sure he's all right, to see if he's learned his lesson or perhaps surpassed us in his knowledge of the universe. We know he's on to something and we resent him for it as much as we admire him. And did I mention the overwhelming eeriness of the album, recorded so lo-fi and sparsely that it sounds like an unearthed relic from the '20s returned to haunt us with its prescience? It's an album that transcends description, for it really isn't about anything so much as it evokes one man's personality. If every album I listened to was this taxing and brilliant, I'd either be rich, enlightened or dead by now.

Technical note: As with a lot of albums I've heard lately, the low-production recording has completely blown out the high end of the audio scale. I had my CD player volume at midway and I could hear tape hiss loud enough to make me wince. Likewise, Banhart's predilection for high notes occasionally results in a shriek so distorted as to be painful. I'm grateful for grass roots music and promotion, so the world can hear a Devendra Banhart album. I just think more care needs to be paid to the technical end of the process so that skilled performers aren't drowning in bad production values. --