Avant lo-fi masterpiece.... | by Ed Howard

When bedroom recording coincides with true genius

Devendra Banhart’s music, like so much that’s good in this world, is deceptively simple. One guy, an acoustic guitar, and a home recording studio rarely add up to rock bombast, and frequently can be a formula for masturbatory venting, but every so often someone gets it right, and the result is electrifying. Syd Barrett, on his post-Floyd solo albums, achieved just that balance of off-kilter genius and raw experimentation necessary to reach lo-fi nirvana, and Banhart’s self-assured, train-off-the-tracks debut comes close to matching Barrett’s effectiveness.
Of course, unlike good old Syd, Banhart is probably not a schizophrenic acid casualty, and he definitely doesn’t have David Gilmour behind the mixing boards desperately trying to neaten things up. Banhart’s unadorned, unpretentious songs also verge much closer to folk than Barrett ever did. Like Dylan in his early Guthrie admiration phase, Banhart’s melodies capture the primitive simplicity (if not the actual sound) of back-country porch blues. Songs like “The Charles C. Leary” evoke the storytelling tradition in folk history, but without actually telling a coherent narrative. Again, like Barrett and Dylan, Banhart’s lyrics focus on images and poetic phrases, not tangibles, and his best songs have a crazed glee in the delivery of these non-sequitors. “I’m lost in the dark/ lend me your teeth,” he moans in a sinister, tight-lipped whisper, while elsewhere he’s bombastically ecstatic as he rambles out a stream-of-consciousness rant on “Happy Happy Oh.” Over the course of this sprawling album (22 brief, sometimes unfinished gems in 50 minutes), Banhart’s initially off-putting voice slowly begins to seem less annoying, as his various quirks start to seem like endearing manifestations of his personality rather than just grating vocal tics. On “Nice People,” he repeats a small number of brief phrases over and over again, emphasizing them in different ways each time to evoke different reactions. He also shatters the (admittedly tenuous) illusion of an authentic folk album by overdubbing his voice on this track and many others. Other than that one indulgence, however, most of the album retains its urgent simplicity, pairing Banhart’s fractured poetry with his distinctive guitar-playing. The only additional “instrumentation” comes from Banhart’s whistling, hand claps, and various vocal accents.
The result captures just what I love most about music—in fact, what is quickly becoming a regular theme in my reviews here—the capacity to surprise. Good music can shock and thrill me with: 1) raw, honest emotion; 2) a new, innovative sound; 3) genuine, youthful rawk; and 4) a wild willingness to ignore conventions and do whatever feels good. Banhart’s Oh Me Oh My… certainly has a generous helping of both one and four, and probably a smidgeon of three in his apparent self-confidence, and that’s more than enough to recommend him as one of those rare cases when bedroom recording coincides with true genius.