Rejoicing in the Hands | by Michael Crumsho

One of my favorite albums of the year

Possessed with a nimble fingers and quivering vibrato, Devendra Banhart's approach to both British and American folk forms catapulted him to the forefront of a burgeoning folk set faster than you could say "revival." He wowed Young God head Michael Gira with a clutch of homemade tapes recorded over the course of his travels that later became his debut, Oh Me, Oh My.... Granted, while his skills and craft as a songwriter were generally excellent, the tunes were sometimes aimless, locking in on his high-pitched braying and tape hiss that sometimes threatened to strangle his songs. Rejoicing in the Hands, his second proper full-length (and the first of two slated for release this year), comes as a bit of a shock, then. Any waifish naiveté or lingering lo-fi has been ditched. In fact, it sounds almost as if Banhart has aged ten years in the past two.

What the record represents is a distillation of the material he presented earlier. Recorded with Lynn Bridges over the course of a couple weeks in his living room in Georgia, the tracks here feel more intimate and yet still spacious, framed by the occasional chirping of cicadas and subtle arrangements that laconically pass through. When stripped of the tape hiss, Banhart's guitar is given room to breathe, giving his songs an openness and sense of urgency that was often lacking before - while "This Is the Way" is as breezy as a summer night on a back porch, "A Sight to Behold" bristles with a rising vocal line held against intricate guitar work and the occasional orchestral flourish.

Banhart has few tricks up his sleeve, but those he does possess he uses capably. "Dogs They make Up the Dark" touches on the blues, whereas the ramshackle piano and gentle pacing of "Will Is My Friend" stroll through country territory. He giggles his way through the Spanish verses of "Todo Los Dolores," and its references to Peter Pan and winsome melodies giving it the feel of a children's tale. But for this singer-songwriter, these are but various branches of the same tree, all united by his increasingly confident voice and the strums coming from his acoustic guitar. The two best songs on the record, however, are those that sound little like anything else Banhart has done, with "Fall" allowing space for a rhythmic percussion track underneath the spun guitar lines. "Autumn's Child" is the album's closer and its most haunting moment - a spare piano ballad with Banhart's voice reduced to a ghostly whisper.

Much as before, his influences still shine through to front and center in his latest collection. His trans-Atlantic take on the folk canon owes as much to Harry Smith as it does those in Joe Boyd's stable (a link cemented with a lithe duet with recluse Vashti Bunyan on the record's title track), and yet retains an earnestness that never feels studied. But the biggest difference between the two albums is Banhart's newfound sense of control - his picking is spot-on and his warble is kept in check. Banhart now gives his song ideas the ability to grow. While much of his debut felt tossed off, even the shortest of pieces here feel carefully plotted and exist only as much as they need to. Granted, there will be some that cling to the lo-fi eccentricities of that debut, but while Oh Me Oh My... may have won him heaps of critical praise, Rejoicing in the Hands is the album that backs it all up. Rather than shy away from the praise, Banhart reacted with confidence and made what is sure to be one of my favorite albums of the year.