Rejoicing in the Hands

The Ithacan, NY | by Andy Culpepper

A breath of fresh air

To listen to Devendra Banhart’s new CD, “Rejoicing in the Hands,” for the first time is to be transported to his strange and unpredictable world. Listeners might laugh at his high, quavering voice and offbeat lyrics or feel a slight chill as eerie acoustic guitar melodies drift through the air.

To listen to it a second time is to recognize a work of sheer gentle beauty and masterful songwriting. Every song on Banhart’s sophomore album is a sensitive and intimate gem. Even the liner notes include his original watercolor paintings and are hand-lettered with a touch of his careful love.

Upon digesting the unique sonic experience, one is naturally curious about the background and character of this eccentric artist. Banhart started recording when he was 18, in his freshman year at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he studied sound, film, sculpture, drawing and painting. He used primitive equipment including a friend’s answering machine to record more than 50 songs before sending a demo tape to Young God Records, where he is currently signed.

Twenty-two of these songs were selected for Banhart’s debut record, 2003’s “Oh Me Oh My … The Way the Day Goes by the Sun is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit.” Since the release of that record, he has been busy touring the United States and Europe, as well as working on nonmusical side projects, like a book with a story and his own artwork. For “Rejoicing,” Banhart decided to use professional recording equipment, resulting in a much cleaner sounding second effort, although plenty of grime inherent in his artistic vision still remains.

Technically, Banhart’s acoustic guitar fingerpicking, heard on every song, is spotless. His guitar dominates the record, and other musicians appear on only a few tracks. Clear influences are heard from early Delta blues artists such as Mississippi John Hurt and Leadbelly.

Banhart’s tender singing voice is also somewhat reminiscent of Hurt but hardly seems comparable to any other singer. Even more outstanding are his lyrics, which are almost always nonsequitur. On “This Beard is for Siobahn,” he croons, “The daughter of a man was a mammal/ She bore the mark of fire and of flame/ Though they’re both the same.” The song ends with Banhart rejoicing about taking his teeth out for “a real good time.” This is not to say that his lyrics are arbitrary or superfluous to the melody. Each line may not directly connect to the one after it, but each is poetry in itself.

Banhart is a skilled wordsmith, but where his talent really shines is in his beautifully crafted melodies. He is capable of both cheerful, uplifting tunes and haunting, minor- key nightmares. The loping “Fall” has Indian inflections while “Todo Los Dolores” sounds like a South American or Mexican traditional song, one he might have picked up during his time spent living in Argentina or his childhood in Texas.

This album is a refreshing reminder that simple, kindhearted music can still be found in today’s world of lip-synching MTV sellout superstars. It is a heartening discovery for anyone who thought that old-time acoustic blues and folk influences had vanished from music, and it’s a great addition to any eclectic music lover’s collection.

“Rejoicing” has only two slight downfalls. One is that it sometimes gets a little too abstract for comfortable listening, and the other is that its songs can occasionally be campy. However, these factors barely detract from the genius of the work. Devendra Banhart’s music is not for the closed-minded, but any open-minded listener will come away with an open heart, as well.