Rejoicing in the Hands | Rating: 8.4

pitchfork | Dominique Leone

Rejoicing in the Hands establishes Banhart as a major voice in new folk music.

You and I listen to more music than anyone in the history of civilization. I don't mean more than your friend or that guy on that message board who seems to know about every buzz-worthy leaked CD before anyone else, but rather, more than any previous generation of active music fans. Think about all our MP3s and CDRs, the stuff we actually buy, and then add in the music we hear once and immediately declare isn't worth the 45 seconds we spent with it. It almost seems ridiculous, because ultimately, few of us would be willing to recommend more than but a few songs (let alone albums) to anyone outside our close-knit music circles. Digital media was supposed to satisfy the audiophiles with better sound and the businessmen with yet another kind of product to convince us we weren't getting everything we could out of music/life. However, its primary effect has been to level music's impact to a similar scale as any other commodity-- outside those few songs we cling to like family, most of it ends up being used as trade-bait, rep maintenance, decoration and garbage.

It's easy to blame this on the digital age, but then, it seems to have been going on longer than MP3s and file-sharing. Kids have been comparing and competing with record collections for as long as I can remember-- probably as long as my mom can remember, too-- but there must have been a time when our hallowed few songs were the only ones that mattered at all. Maybe during the days when people were more worried about war or disease or how they were going to eat in the winter; was it "folk music" they were hearing and singing? I imagine "entertainment" and "self-expression" weren't as valuable as functionality and therapeutic relevance in music.

Devendra Banhart's second full-length (and first of two planned 2004 releases), Rejoicing in the Hands, harkens back to a time before music had so many cultural roles. It's not necessarily an "old-fashioned" record, insofar as his performances or songs are concerned. Banhart's lyrics are as often seemingly nonsensical as they are evocative or descriptive, and his songs defy almost any conventional form you care to introduce. There are references to traditional American folk and blues, as well as hints of British acoustic folk along the lines of Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch and Banhart favorite Vashti Bunyan (who sings on the title track). However, for the most part, Rejoicing in the Hands is a record concerned with the absolute smallest things in life-- which usually end up being the most important-- helping pass the time when time is the only thing going anywhere. It's unconcerned with the past or the future, and is only too ready to supply songs you could sing after dinner or first thing in the morning. It seems valuable to hear something like "we have a choice, we chose rejoice" coming from a new CD, as if that was the only kind of value music was ever supposed to have.

Unlike Banhart's 2002 debut, Oh Me Oh My, Rejoicing in the Hands was professionally recorded, and a few tracks feature backing musicians (including Angels of Light alums Thor Harris, Joe McGinty and Siobahn Duffy). It's far from slick, though, reeking of rustic, homemade charm. Furthermore, it surpasses Oh Me Oh My in both songwriting and Banhart's singing. His songs no longer veer into bizarro cadences or witchy vocal overdubs; Young God's Michael Gira remarks that he didn't want to pigeonhole Banhart as a lo-fi eccentric, and consequently, the singer's range of expression (and surprising delicacy) is given full justice.

Opener "This Is the Way" sets forth the unhurried charge, confident in its own idiosyncrasy. Banhart's wordless count-off to his subtly accomplished fingerpicked guitar work betrays a casual ideal, even as couplets like, "I knew, I knew I could stand tall/ I could lay low," seem typically Banhartian in their benign whimsy. Likewise, the short guitar instrumental "Tit Smoking in the Temple of Artesan Mimicry" seems strangely familiar in its relaxed, uncomplicated feel, as Banhart's deceptively intricate lines cross one another like dueling minstrels on the road to nowhere. "Todo Los Dolores" even stops down as Banhart forgets the lyrics and has to begin again, much to the chagrin and amusement of a studio companion. If nothing else, Rejoicing in the Hands celebrates the informal and comfortable.

Other songs seem weightier. "When the Sun Shone on Vetiver" features Banhart accompanying his acoustic with angelic slide guitar, and a ghostly violin harmonizing his lead vocal. The midtempo, folky drone underneath his pseudo-psychedelic melodic vocal phrasing contributes to an unearthly ambience. "Will Is My Friend" features plaintive piano and double bass accompaniment, and comes off as a midnight country-blues lament for "Going Back to California". Closer "Autumn's Child" forgoes guitar almost entirely, featuring Banhart's quivering vocal over a soft, minor-chord piano dirge. Lines like, "She wanted to leave it, but she could not because it was her own child," sound melodramatic on the page, but over the course of song, seem almost offhandedly frank.

Rejoicing in the Hands establishes Banhart as a major voice in new folk music. Not only does it improve on the promise of his earlier releases; it effortlessly removes the listener from the context of the recording. That is, it doesn't seem like an album so much as a collection of road hymns and journals, and small tributes to smaller pleasures. If some people miss the appeal of this stuff in an attempt to digest it as any other product, all the better knowing Banhart will probably keep on rejoicing until forever.