Devendra Banhart | OH ME OH MY... | Review
San Francisco Bay Guardian | Lynn Rapoport
When I closed my eyes, I heard a crazy lady sing the blues.Devendra Banhart, 20 years old, extravagant of hair, skinny as a rail, looked like he knew something about the cracks in the sidewalk when I saw him play in the back room of Club Waziema last year. He sat hunched over his guitar and drifted through a set of short, skittery songs in a voice that hung around in falsetto a lot, with sudden drops in altitude I could feel in my stomach. When I closed my eyes, I heard a crazy lady sing the blues.
A year later, Banhart's come out with an album whose full title, Oh Me Oh My ... the Way the Day Goes by the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit (Young God), is a skittery, crazy-lady conversation all its own. For the record, I think he could stand up to Justin as a boy idol if he had to. Banhart's vocals are no less affected than Justin's and twice as unnerving. The nation's teenagers might not go for him, but undersocialized young adults on anti-anxiety medication may be waiting for trading cards with his picture on them. And, as luck would have it, there are photos of Banhart frolicking in his underwear on the Young God Web site, where he offers clues to his character in a tale of his short life's rambles from Texas to Caracas, Venezuela, to a canyon in southern California to San Francisco to L.A. to Paris to San Francisco to L.A. to a tenuous squat in an old salsa club in New York and clues to his influences in an elegiac list of blues and folk singers including Mississippi John Hurt, Vashti Bunyan, and Fred Neil.
In a drawing by Banhart on the back of the liner notes, the text "KEEP UP THE GOOD FIGHT" flies over what looks like a turreted castle with legs. The hand-scribed lyrics may have been written by a young man in a garret using the light streaming in through a keyhole. Certain songs sound like someone following you down a country road in the dark, a dead person with a guitar and a fragmented poetic sensibility. Two tracks of Banhart's vocals line up unevenly and vibrate together, occasionally contradicting each other, clumsy like the things you say as you fall asleep. One of the saddest songs, "The Charles C. Leary," is a litany of people lost and found and lost again. "Lend Me Your Teeth" sets off a scream like a teakettle whistling and never taken off the flame. Your spine could bend under the pressure. But I don't press pause and scream. Some kinds of creepy are better than others.
On "Michigan State," Banhart croons seductively to a place he's never seen, and it's the prettiest thing I've heard all week. Laughing at his own jokes and talking in nursery-rhyme circles around sweetness and evil and sea salt and snails, he uses the kind of logic only poetry can offer up and get away with. You could sing a child to sleep with it or keep yourself awake all night wondering what it means.
E-mail Lynn Rapoport at firstname.lastname@example.org