Rejoicing in the Hands

Washington City Paper | by Shauna Miller

Banhart’s distinctive timbre to emerge as the central instrument

Devendra Banhart’s debut, 2002’s Oh Me Oh My..., introduced the singer as a precious, off-center warbler with a gift for haunting, Brothers Grimm–esque lyrics and a crush on Marc Bolan the size of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Swans’ Michael Gira scooped the then-21-year-old foundling, fed and clothed him, and released an unretouched, often distractingly lo-fi collection of his songs to glowing reviews, most of which made much of the fact that Banhart was born to a family of traveling hippie mystics from Texas. Rejoicing in the Hands, Banhart’s second full-length, offers the scruffy nü-Donovan a chance to put a cleaner face forward. This time around, there is actual production, courtesy of Gira, with Banhart’s tinny voice augmented by strings, slide guitar, and even the occasional soul singer. These additions are applied with restraint, though, and don’t turn out to be as devastating as you might think. “This Beard Is for Siobhán,” for example, manages to work a slow build of bass, drums, piano, and kazoo into the folk equivalent of an Idiot-era Iggy rocker. Whereas Oh Me Oh My... used unrelenting tape hiss practically as orchestration, Rejoicing captures every raspy breath and spit smack, allowing Banhart’s distinctive timbre to emerge as the central instrument. The album shows Banhart maturing as a storyteller as well, celebrating the beauty of nature in terms that approach religious fervor. On the title track, Banhart sings with one of his musical heroes, Vashti Bunyan, against a simple guitar line adorned with a plinking xylophone: “In the dark we are without her empress/...Owl eyes her sun will rise and light the land/All rejoice, we are in her hands.” Spirituality—especially the kind involving a magical empress—isn’t the most instantly accessible theme in indie-rock, but the pair pulls off innocence and wonder without channeling Pedro the Lion. Clearly, Banhart is ready to emerge from the curiosity-act pigeonhole he’s been incubating inside. Now, if only he’d stop toting that prayer-rug blankie to his shows.