OH ME OH MY ... | Devendra Banhart

Waterfront week/St. louis | by ERIC R. DANTON

One of the most fascinating records this year

One of the most fascinating records this year comes from Devendra Banhart, a 21-year-old wanderer as eccentric as anyone who has ever picked up an acoustic guitar.

With a quavery voice, lyrical non sequiturs and meandering acoustic guitar, the Texas-born musician evokes Syd Barrett and very early Marc Bolan on the 22 tracks that make up his debut, "Oh Me Oh My ..."

The songs are unprocessed, stream-of-consciousness missives that Banhart made for himself on borrowed four-track cassette recorders while he drifted haphazardly from San Francisco to Paris, Los Angeles to New York. Friends persuaded him to seek a wider audience, and those raw demos became "Oh Me Oh My ..."

"My first impulse on hearing these songs might have been to take him into a studio and `produce' a record for him, but the more I thought about it, the less sense it made," Michael Gira, head of Young God Records, wrote in the press notes accompanying the album.

Despite the scratchy sound - calling it lo-fi is generous; "handmade" is more accurate - and the occasional bang from fireworks, gunshots (really) or other unintended ambient noises, it's clear why Gira was reluctant to mess with Banhart's songs. They are compelling in a haunting, sometimes harrowing, way. His guitar picking is sublime on "Pumpkin Seeds," and the influence of idol Mississippi John Hurt is obvious on "Cosmos and Demos." Banhart's surreal lyrics (sample: "I'm lost in the dark/ Lend me your teeth") float on his mesmerizing melodies like seabirds on the ocean, and the warbling tape quality reveals a vocal sensibility similar to Nick Drake's on some tracks.

It's never really clear what any of his songs are about (except "Michigan State," which is about not having been to Michigan), but it never really matters, either. Banhart's tunes are the musical equivalent of twisty, unmarked back streets, where it's easy and often rewarding to simply get lost and see where you end up.