Handy Man

The Hartford Advocate | by John Adamian

Wandering troubadour, vocal acrobat, mystic and talented visual artist
Devendra Banhart´s new record

We're far enough into 2004 now to make statements like this: Devendra Banhart's new record, Rejoicing in the Hands , will definitely make a lot of music critics' top-10 lists for this year. Banhart plucks out vaguely spooky, modal tunes on an acoustic guitar. But his astonishingly intimate singing ups the spookiness factor considerably. These recordings have the confessional feel of a diary entry from someone who might be slightly disturbed. Banhart's songs emit the warm glow of a crazed zealot. You almost feel like you're violating his privacy by listening to them.

Banhart does something with his voice, moving it around inside his mouth to the back of the throat, making it quake and tremble. At first listen you won't like it -- he might even make you uncomfortable. Over the course of one track he might evoke Jeff Buckley, Buffy St. Marie, Nick Drake, Tiny Tim, Eartha Kitt, Billie Holiday, Donovan, Jack White, Melanie, or Robert Plant.

It's not that he's a chameleon: He sounds possessed. Banhart uses everything available to color and shift the timbre of his voice -- teeth, throat, nose, chest, tongue, lips and breath all give shape to his striking sound. It's beautifully weird music. But what makes Banhart so captivating as an artist is more than just the way the music hits the ear.

Banhart spent part of his childhood in Venezuela. He attended art school in San Francisco and then lived as a roaming troubadour for a stretch, eventually winding up in Paris. The training in the arts comes through in the intricately detailed drawings that Banhart uses for cover art -- in this case a surrealistic depiction of birds and strange creatures made up of little hands. It's part folk-art, part illuminated manuscript and part ornate Middle-Eastern patterns. The looney, obsessive hand-written detail of the lyric sheet gives further evidence of a creatively fruitful personality disorder.

Elegantly simple piano, organ, string and percussion are brushed in behind Banhart's singing and guitar playing, but one can still hear the crickets in the background at times.

And the lyrics are as weirdly captivating as everything else. "It's a sight to behold/ when you've got some old words to mold/ and you can make 'em your own./ ... It's like finding home/ in an old folk song/ that you've never heard/ and still you know every word, and you can sing along," he sings on "A Sight to Behold." Banhart's best songs really are like "finding home in an old folk song," they're strange but somehow familiar, and soon enough you will be able to sing every word.