Devendra Banhart | Oh Me Oh My | Review

Boise, Idaho, The Arbiter | Jim Toweill

Devandra Banhart's lost tapes found

During the '30s, Devandra Banhart grew up in the small, unincorporated town of Wentzville, Mo.

A good-natured, but shy and withdrawn boy, he generally preferred the company of animals to people.

But he became deeply fascinated by the folk and blues music he heard when his parents took him on their business trips to St. Louis.

He received an acoustic guitar from his uncle at age 13 and attempted to imitate this music from memory, eventually developing eccentric but highly skilled picking and singing styles.

He never had a chance to record or play for any audience except his family before he went off to join the Allied Forces in 1942. Having a kind, peace-loving and fragile personality, Devandra's mind couldn't incorporate the terror and violence of war and had a breakdown.

He was sent to a facility in London (ironically, the same hospital where J. D. Salinger stayed) where he was allowed to record a number of songs on a primitive piece of audio equipment as therapy.

This creative outburst fostered a remarkable improvement in his mental health and he was declared fit to return to duty. Devandra Banhart was killed in combat on March 16, 1944.

The tapes of his songs outlived him in a dusty, forgotten cabinet at the Oxford University library until one Michael Gira came across them while doing research for his Ph.D. thesis on British radio commercials about laundry soap.

He was immediately taken aback by the quality and intimacy of the recordings and threw his hands in the air several times in jubilation.

The above is all a fiction of the worst romantic kind, but if you recorded Oh Me Oh My onto a slightly warped old cassette tape and played it for a few people you could probably convince them of the story's authenticity.

Devandra Banhart is quite alive, 22-years-old, sometimes lives in abandoned buildings and travels around like a minstrel.

He also seems to have grown up in a cultural vacuum, making music miraculously untainted by traces of trends, pretension, technology and the rapid tides of modernity in general.

His sometimes shrill, unnervingly vibrating pipes radiate a haunting purity and innocence we like to associate with the old, nostalgic times of the early 20th century.

The extremely basic 4-track recordings with minimal overdubs and complete absence of studio manipulation certainly add to the vintage aura.

Banhart is not a token throwback though, and his music contains smatterings of American folk and blues sounds from the '20s to the '70s, with touches of the avant-garde (or perhaps just avant-un-self-consciousness) and elements that are endemic to his own eccentric, dreamlike imagination.

Banhart's insular lyrical world is one where there are "a lot of birds that people like to draw," "paper colored cats," "umber armed albinos," skies "made of lips, made of bone," a lot of snails with Banhart's "favorite slow," and where you can count his teeth to keep the time.

As much like whimsical nonsense as they sound, his words do carry a gorgeous poetic consistency in their strange tales of animals, bodies, parents, nice people and other supposedly simple things.

Whatever he sings, his rich, irresistible voice, finger-plucked guitar and occasional handclapping make it magical.

If you had to compare him to other artists you might pick Tom Waits, Isaac Brock (when he's not rocking out), Angels of Light, Syd Barrett and Nick Drake, but Banhart's music seems rawer and even less calculated than these.

It doesn't get too much more genuine than this folks, no sir.