Devendra Banhart | OH ME OH MY... | Review | Nathan Hogan

Falsetto Truths

Artist: Devendra Banhart

Album: Oh Me Oh MyÅ The Way The Day Goes By The Sun is Setting Dogs are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit

Label: Young God

Devendra Banhart's voice is a strange and ineffable instrument. It whistles eerily like the wind through loose boards, changes shape and drops into the realm of a scratchy and androgynous blues, toys with a vowel in a faux British accent, and emerges as a child recounting a dream to the tune of his music box. It strings non-sequiturs across a fifty minute Freudian slip-n-slide, and convinces you of nothing less than its dead-earnestness. When you're in the mood for it, it's an exciting trip.

The lists of Banhart comparisons I've so far encountered tend to number no fewer than five or six different singers, and it's difficult to take issue with any of the selections. To a list already including early Marc Bolan, Daniel Johnston, Karen Dalton, Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, and Tiny Tim, I propose to add Skip Spence, Nikki McClure, and Oliver Brown, a ukulele player who used to haunt coffee shops in the town where I grew up. I don't mean to mention Brown in an exclusive way; there are currents riding through Banhart's otherworldly falsetto and surreal wordplay that I imagine most people could tie down somewhere. Personally I think of Brown, a mysterious ukulele player with songs about milk and Fred Astaire musicals, but it could just as easily be an old Arhoolie record dubbed onto a broken tape, or even the way Spence's Oar sounded to somebody on a particular night. All of these associations are a credit to Banhart's dexterity, because he's about as non-derivative as one can be with their voice and some finger-picking guitar, give or take some whistles and a hand-clap or two.

Banhart's voice is nimble, and it tries on clothes almost as fast as it can take them off, but throughout Oh Me Oh MyŠit remains indisputably and unmistakably his own. As a single voice it is distinct enough, but in the presence of an overdubbed self-accompaniment ­ the case throughout much of the record ­ it multiplies in its beauty and oddity. Aside from the cosmic harmonics that ensue, there's an exciting sensation that Banhart is somehow taking cues from a present alter-ego. On "Michigan State" one voice holds the first note of a line long enough for the other to quit whistling and catch up, and as Banhart's singing later begins to race ahead in tempo, volume, and pitch you can feel the contagious excitement that the second part is reacting to. His lyrics ­ chock full of playful descriptions of dismembered body parts, imaginary beaches and oceans, fig trees and Jewish canteens ­ also tend to interrupt themselves with abrupt self-directives ("The horse licks your skin, begin!"). The result feels indicative of a multifaceted consciousness; its spontaneity springs from facets of the mind playing with the fruits of their own creative labor.

In this way Oh Me Oh MyŠtakes the shape of an elaborate 21-track patchwork. Pieces are for the most part elliptical and vaguely structured, and it works. At the same time, the three songs that hover near the four-minute mark ­ "Michigan State", "Soon is Good", and "Pumpkin Seeds" ­ tend to be among Banhart's best because, without abandoning his fluidity of expression, he commits himself to one notion in each, however mysterious, for long enough to see it fully through. As a listener you feel the result implicitly, even if you don't know why pumpkin seeds or teeth or Michigan matter exactly ­ which, I should add, won't stop you from catching yourself humming about them at random moments throughout the day.