Devendra Banhart | Review

Los Angeles Times | Richard Cromelin

In a day's quirk

The enchanting music Devendra Banhart made just for himself catches on.

It's been awhile since an obsessive, naïve, utterly original musical visionary -- a Beck, a Vic Chesnutt -- emerged from a private sanctum into the embrace of the rock cognoscenti. But we've got one now.

On his debut album, Devendra Banhart sounds something like a demented Donovan, traversing the enchanted and haunted woods of his mind. Surreal images and nursery rhyme-catchy melodies spin a spell of deep mystery, and Banhart sings them with an idiosyncratic tremble that's been likened to early Marc Bolan -- though the 21-year-old says he didn't hear the late English star until after he'd made his record.

Well, he didn't actually make a record.

"Oh Me Oh My ... " (the start of a 22-word title) is simply a collection of raw demos, complete with distant crashes, surface noise and tape flaws.

"I thought the way they're recorded adds to the ambience of what he's doing," says Michael Gira, whose Young God Records released "Oh Me" late last year. "If you listen to old Robert Johnson stuff, the hiss is louder than the voice usually, so I think it's just fine."

Banhart -- who plays tonight at the Silverlake Lounge and Friday at the Smell -- will record his next album more formally.

"Before, I'd have to think in terms of how it's gonna sound when I record it for my ... answering machine, but now that there's access to a studio, I can think of piano and xylophones and zithers," Banhart says. Sitting in a jazz-drenched coffeehouse, the guitarist speaks excitedly as he sees himself swept into an accidental career.

"I don't think I'm a musician," he says. "Not at all. It's really weird, right? It's not intended for anyone else to hear other than me.... I don't think my music is commercial and I didn't make it for anybody."

Born in Texas and raised in Venezuela and then Encinal Canyon near Malibu, Banhart was a classic outsider, enduring classmates' taunts at Malibu High until he discovered he could fight back by wearing a different costume, including dresses, every day.

After leaving art school in San Francisco, he played "crummy gigs" there and in L.A., until he came to the attention of Gira, former leader of angst-rock band the Swans.

"I personally think that if I had more resources here, he could be the next Beck or something," says Gira, preparing to assume a long-term patronage. "He's guileless. I feel very protective of him entering into the fray of the disgusting music business .... He just kind if wanders about and people seem to gravitate to him and want to take care of him."