Devendra Banhart, Oh me Oh my…

like acid-fried blues

In an age where so many fops and dandies are trying to sound like Mark Bolan’s glam cornerstone T-Rex circa Electric Warrior or The Slider, it’s refreshing to have young Devandra Banhart come along sounding like T-Rex’s earlier incarnation Tyrannosaurus Rex. The early Tyrannosaurus recordings were the vehicle for Bolans whimsical, elfin, folk musings, and were recorded primarily with just acoustic guitar and hand drums. If some song titles will help to paint the picture, track names off of the not-coincidentally long titled Prophets Seers & Sages the Angels of the Ages included “The Travelling Tratigion,” “Juniper Suction,” and “Scenes of a Dynasty” (each clocking in at a little more than a minute). Now if that doesn’t make you want to pull out your seven-sided dice, maybe Devandra Banhart will.

Banhart’s debut album on Young God Records sounds like the home recordings of a dirty freaky hippie or an old Ohio chicken farmer putting down his keepin’-busy workin’ songs on tape. Not to give the impression that this sounds like country music, which it doesn’t, more like acid-fried blues; delightfully weird and grating in its embrace of the trebly hiss of a plastic Sears 2-track and the blaring voice of an able kook much, much too close to the microphone holes.

But Devandra Banhart is not an old chicken farmer, though he may be from rural America, and he’s probably not an acid fried hippie (though this might be closer to the truth). How much of that is true depends upon what you want to believe of what you read, or whether you will actually ever get a chance to meet Devandra Banhart and find out who he really is, or how he lives he life. But do you want to be that D.A. Pennebaker and chase Banhart around and record him saying obscure things? Not me!

In the meantime, I’ll consider him to be the narrator of these brash tales of platonic beatnik love and cosmic fortune cookie wisdom. That until I find out that much like the legend of Vashti Bunyan (whom he thanks in his CD credits) he ditches New York City and heads on-foot to Nova Scotia with a cow, a dog, and a horse. As much as I want to see him as just the narrator of these songs (much as it’s correct to see the brilliant Zimmerman as the narrator of his respective songs), I wouldn’t be surprised to drive past Banhart on 1-93, walking roadside with an acoustic guitar tied around his neck, cow, dog, and horse in tow.

My direct impression of the quality of the songwriting at play is that it is comparable to early Tyrannosaurus in spirit but not in ingenuity. Unlike other guitarists who have eked gems out of simple chords in unpredictable patterns (Bolan, Barrett, even Cobain) Banhart mines the more predictable vernacular of the Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters songbook. Furthermore, he scraps Bolan’s sexy coo for a more yawpish vocal trance, like a pre-Velvet’s Brill Building Lou Reed, or even a pre-“Space Oddity” Bowie (neé Jones).

But for all the incense & cattails and holy childhood imagery, what perhaps may be the most important point of all is that Banhart represents the foolish troubadour of days of yore in a society as secretly rigid as ours. Free to move as he pleases and to suffer the poverty that accompanies freewheeling; free to love and leave openly with just his guitar, horse, cow, and dog in tow; no band to teach, no rehearsals or arrangements, no second takes. Just a Tyrannosaurus Rex-worshipping kid giving the music business his all