Devendra Banhart's Rejoicing in the Hands

Music Spectrum | by Benjamin Squires

Banhart’s melodic poems

He’s joining the ranks of the Jazz-influenced Rock singer/songwriters that have created quite a niche for themselves, using an approach that gives nods to both the classic jazz masters and rock’s best. He’s joining the Spectrum just up the line from Sondre Lerche, that Norwegian singer only beginning to make waves with his jazzy melodramatic tunes. He’s nearby Norah Jones who cutely caught the world by storm with Come Away with Me due in part to the help of her composer, Jesse Harris, whose solo album also resides her. He lands just ahead of Rufus Wainwright, because he’s less given to pop melodies than Rufi.

He is Devendra Banhart, and his album, Rejoicing in the Hands , has hints of jazz all over the places. Its songs start and stop and begin again and pause on the edge and then keep going. Banhart is definitely a crooner, even if his voice is odd and casual and folky. Banhart wants to croon, making his voice an instrument. He plays with the melody, breaking out of rhythm as often as not, playing with the sounds and combinations of words. The jazz rhythm is most apparent on “This Beard is for Siobhan,” a ragtime-feel, a bit of Satchmo delivery.

Produced with Michael Gira (The Swans) on Gira’s label, Young God Records ,Rejoicing in the Hands shares in some of the ethereal qualities of The Swans. We’re in an empty room, an empty loft apartment, on a dark night, listening to Banhart’s melodic poems. He sings in the corner, not realizing we’re there. He stares out the window, entranced by the world he brings to his songs.

Most of the songs are short (less than 3 minutes), feeling at times as if they are fragments. They drift off at times without resolution, like there’s still a few more stanzas to be sung, to be written, to be continued. That only more fully develops the unworldly character of the album. We’re only getting glimpse into Banhart’s world of characters, emotions, creatures, myths, legends, and odd stories.

While Rufus Wainwright writes music, as he says, “to listen to while cleaning the house,” you’ll never just find yourself in full voice singing along with Banhart. We’re dealing much more with the influences of avant-garde jazz, hitting on a melody line only to quickly fall off from something quite straightforward. The instrumentation keeps it within folk with acoustic guitar the mainstay, but the finger-picking can’t betray the desire to break out into a much more full voice. On “Will is My Friend,” the guitar picks along like an old folk tune, but listen to the backing piano almost willing Banhart to break out from the shuffling, side-of-the-cheek singing, break out into a full, sustained lines, “This is the water/In which we wade/This is our Father/This is how we strayed.”

That restrain again pulls you into the world of Banhart. You want to pull up a chair and peer into the stereo speaker—just what is going on in these songs? Rather than pushing you away, the song fragments, halting beats, and odd pieces draw the listener to discover something just beneath the surface, something that’s a bit cryptic but might just open up your mind. It’s usually either drugs or religion that can do. I’m not sure which Banhart taps into here, although the more I listen, the more I discover might reflect on my faith.