Devendra Banhart

Illinois Entertainer | by Steve Forstneger

Bottom Lounge, Chicago Sunday, June 13, 2004

It's funny. During the elongated period between Elliott Smith's final official album, Figure 8 , and his death, an unholy number of singer-songwriters sprang up with press clippings declaring them as his heirs. In the eight months since, not only the throne but any allusion to it has disappeared. Now, nobody's claiming that Devendra Banhart is that guy. But like Smith's early efforts when he was rotating outside the realm of his full-time gig, Heatmiser, Banhart recognizes no boundaries in his personal pursuits. His Smith-ish characteristic is that he is alone in his idiom; if he were to stop today the ensuing cult would outweigh the popularity he had during his recording career.

Banhart is essentially a New York via San Fran busker whose tapes found the right tastemaking ears. Michael Gira brought the songwriter to his Young God Records and released the enigmatic Oh Me Oh My -- an album title whose 30 additional words rival Fiona Apple's When The Pawn -- which documented Banhart's idiosyncratic style that instantly recalls Lou Barlow's Sentridoh sideshow. But opposed to Barlow's snippets, the songs on Oh Me crackle beneath the cheap tape on which they were recorded and seem to drone as minor bits of one piece. There's a lack of coherence yet a wholeness all the same -- a dreaded artsy album that undeniably brims with talent, hints of acid-casualties like Syd Barret or Lone Pigeon.

Rejoicing In The Hands -- 16 of 32 finished songs from the same recording sessions; the second half will be released this fall -- places Banhart inside actual studio walls, and his genius becomes all the more apparent. Less evasive than Oh Me but still filled with mystery -- whether this is done self-consciously is impossible to tell -- the arrangements are strikingly sharp and the production is thankfully clear (step forward and sing! ). His voice evokes Marc Bolan of T. Rex with hints of a doped-up Wicked Witch Of The West, but what really comes through is his dexterous guitar playing -- strong suits of both Nick Drake and Elliott Smith that are criminally overlooked.

What might ultimately prove to be a problem for Rejoicing is that, once again, Banhart requires full-attention for the entire piece. It's not something that can have radio singles plucked from it, though "A Sight To Behold" could be a strong candidate. It even has hazy hippie elements to it that recall pre-glam T. Rex. But whatever the obstacle, it's a charming album and should be heralded as the work not of the next Elliott Smith, but of the first Devendra Banhart.

Banhart is also a featured performer on the latest album by Vetiver , whom open. Fronted by Andy Cabic , the band's take on folk is inextricably linked to Banhart's solo output, though as a whole would be less likely to be institutionalized by a stricter society. Their self-titled debut isn't quite as Beatles-obsessed as Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, but has a subdued madness about it that keeps it from resting calmly between your ears.