Surreal Folk Blues

Baltimore City Paper | by Bret McCabe

A Troika of Performers Bleed a New Breed of Psychedelic Folk

Sixteen seconds into “Todo los Dolores” Devendra Banhart loses his cool and starts laughing like he just got the punch line to a joke he heard three days earlier. He stops singing the airy Spanish ballad, the finger-picked arpeggio accompaniment ceases, and he cracks up. In the background a few other cackles come over the recording. And after some composing rustle, Banhart starts back up and lets his trembling voice transform the giggle festival into a reverie.

It’s a wonderfully lighthearted moment on the 23-year-old singer/songwriter’s latest offering of psychedelic folk, Rejoicing in the Hands, and also a candid snapshot of a crop circle of young artists taking cues from 1960s and ’70s British folk but mirthfully reinventing it on their own terms. For this outpost, the guitars are acoustic, the tempos are moderate to slow, the orchestrations are sparse, and the lyrics are most definitely enigmatic. But intertwined in those dressings are truly bizarre lyrical worlds, blues-based backgrounds have pretty much been traded in for circular raga structures or other non-Western forms, the instrumentation is eclectic, and everything is delivered with a precocious sincerity of vision that would be insufferably pretentious if it didn’t sound like everybody was having a blast. This vibe is felt most in an interconnected group of artists with recent San Francisco ties—Banhart, Vetiver, and Joanna Newsom—who are currently touring together.

Vetiver is the band for the swaying-grass songs of guitarist/vocalist Andy Cabic, backed by Banhart, cellist Alissa Anderson, and violinist Jim Gaylord. Vetiver’s self-titled debut hedges closest to the traditional folk idea—airy guitar and voice arrangements gently accented with harmonized backing vocals—with the added twist of the two-person string section. The cello and violin serve as a hypnotic rhythm section, the cello’s bowed or plucked lines marking time to the violin’s seesawing melodic backbone. They paint the moody background to the guitar dances in “Oh Papa,” lend “Belles” a Michael Nyman-esque anxious undertow, and lend a gently strummed guitar melody a pastoral texture in “Arboretum.”

The chamber-folk setting is best served by Cabic’s intricate midtempo arrangements and ear for harsh contrasts. Long, morose string lines become contrapuntal elements to a jaunty guitar motif in “Los Pajaros del Rio,” accenting the odd harmonizing of Cabic’s reedy and Banhart’s nasal voices. Their beautifully mismatched voices power the galloping “Amour Fou,” in which a string arrangement swings from an almost honky-tonk stomp to symphonic swell. And in “Amerilie,” each instrument—two guitars, violin, cello, and a harp—has a very simple motif to repeat that sketches a skipping daydream.

Joanna Newsom plucks that simple harp part, but her instrument functions as a singer/songwriter’s guitar on her The Milk-Eyed Mender. The harp’s angelic sustain and resonance turn Newsom’s melodies into cloud-walks in a Japanese garden, an appropriate setting for her unconventional voice. Newsom sings in a high croak tempered by a southern, Texas trill, as if Björk swallowed Sissy Spacek. She sounds a decade younger than her early 20s and sings stories that sound lifted from a preadolescent’s girl’s puffy-sticker imagination, yet when all of The Milk-Eyed Mender’s naiveté comes together, it lands with heft of an old soul.

Newsom can be a little meandering—she warbles near nonsense such as “a little wicker beetle shell/ with four fine masts and lateen sails” and “A thimblesworth of milky moon/ Can touch hearts larger than a thimble” in “Bridges and Balloons” before leveling a full-throated “Oh my love/ Oh, it was a funny little thing/ to be the ones to’ve seen” that catches your breath—but if you give her your attention, she’ll take you on a journey. Her fairy-tale lyrics don’t always weather examination—“Never draw so close to the heat/ That you forget that you must eat” (“En Gallop”), “And the rest of our lives will the moments accrue/ When the shape of their goneness will flare up anew” (“This Side of the Blue”)—but her songs feel more interested in word sounds than meanings, telling stories emotionally rather than literally. And when Newsom’s wide-eyed musical alchemy combines just right—“Sadie,” “Peach, Plum, Pear”—it emits a stark force.

Of the three, Banhart delivers the most consistently, if only because each of his songs is a camera-obscura image of some scene in his overactive imagination. Building slightly on the threadbare home recordings of his 2002 debut, Oh Me Oh My . . . , Rejoicing adds some other textural elements to his craft but for the most part relies entirely on guitar and voice.

And that is all he really needs, for his quivering articulations of whimsically convoluted songs is a lightheaded rush, like smoking a first cigarette in Mexico City’s altitude. On the page, Banhart’s songs read like Beckettian sentence dead ends—“The body aches and that ache takes time/ but you’ll get over yours and I’ll get over mine”—but his phrasing of the line gives that ache a metaphysical pull, as if he’s talking less about physical than emotional grief.

The specter of inner turmoil lurks in the background of Banhart’s songs like a demon outline in a Goya painting; sometimes it’s more pronounced than others. What’s disarming is how he uses this murky backdrop as the pool from which all other emotions run. He turns anatomical collage—“Now because my teeth don’t bite, I can take them out dancing/ I could take my little teeth out and show them a real good time”—into a joyous reverie, the “real good time” of that line becoming a percussive mantra as Banhart repeats it. A guitar line provides the prayer-dance melody for the title song, a Mother Earth elegy on which Banhart is joined by the ’60s folkie Vashti Bunyan. And the giddy “Todo los Dolores”—literally, “all the sorrow”—is one of the happiest songs on the album. Banhart’s interest in sadness isn’t a pessimist’s, however, as his ability to sound the deepest lows, only to return with beatific highs, feels less like misery-wallowing than a giddy interest in all that life can offer.