Banhart's Oh Me Oh My
was one of the oddest and most compelling records I've ever heard. Fragile and otherworldly, warbly and laced with fuzz, it was as direct and personal and spiritually uplifting as music can be, especially music that is recorded on answering machines via trans-Atlantic telephone calls. Accordingly, I was concerned when I heard that the follow-up would be a more conventionally produced affair, recorded with real equipment and including not just Devendra and his guitar, but other instruments, other people. How could this more formal, grown-up recording technology do anything but crush all that was unique about Devendra? However, far from slicking over what I loved about Oh Me Oh Me
, Rejoicing in the Hands
realizes the promise of that astounding (and, in some ways, off-putting) album. Here is Devendra Banhart, not encased in studio gimmickry but freed to pursue his idiosyncratic vision. The music is just as pure and personal and unintermediated as before, but it sounds
better in every conceivable way.
The first difference you'll notice is Banhart's voice, which is stronger, more assured and more resonant than before. He's not as odd-sounding as before, but just as authentic, crooning easily like a lost Appalachian blues-master about love and death and daily existence. The vocals join seamlessly with his bluesy guitar playing, which has, with the clearer recording process, acquired a soft, reverberating glow. In "This Is the Way" and "The Body Breaks" alone, Banhart sounds like three or four of himself. Augmented with the swoop of strings in "A Sight to Behold", his work has an amplified power and emotional depth that Oh Me Oh My only hinted at.
The lyrics are as warmly, oddly evocative as ever. They sketch an offbeat spirituality in "This is the Way" ("This is the soup that I believe in / This is the smoke / I'm always breathing / This is the way I share my breakfast / this is the way I serve my sentence.") and an acceptance of death in "The Body Breaks". Still, they are perhaps best and most beautiful when they talk about the everyday, as on the stunning "Will is My Friend" ("The lemon tree / it laughs at me / it's growing beautifully / the little vine / it won't unwind / and it'll wrap your whole in time / now let's have a glass of wine.").
The album is strong throughout, but hits its apex slightly after the halfway mark. The title track kicks this section off; here, Banhart sings in tandem with Vashti Bunyan, one of the handful of obscure female singers whom he has long and vociferously admired (others are Karen Dalton and Linda Perhacs). The guitar and vocal line are elementally simple, both marching in unison up the first five notes of a major key scale, but the way that Banhart and Bunyan's voices melt together is perfect. Bunyan sounds, eerily, exactly the same as she did on Just Another Diamond Day, recorded almost 40 years ago. This track is followed by "Fall", one of the most lushly orchestrated and rhythmically propulsive of all the album's cuts, the drums pushing along underneath, the wordless chorus mesmerizing. "Todo Los Dolores" picks up on the Spanish guitar hinted at in "Dogs They Make Up the Dark", and despite the fact that Banhart messes up and has to start again (or maybe because of it), the song has a happy, light-hearted sweep to it that contradicts its title. It leads into "When the Sun Shone on Vetiver", a tribute to another of Banhart's musical favorites, San Francisco band Vetiver. Here, the inevitable Tyrannosaurus Rex comparisons start to make sense, as Banhart's voice looms and banks over a hazy, Eastern-flavored musical setting. It could be a B-side to "Child Star", but it's beautiful and mysterious, especially at the end, where he murmurs "in Ireland, my baby waits for me / in Greece, my baby waits for me / in Spain, my baby waits for me" in a slightly rougher, sung-spoken coda to this lovely song.
Rejoicing in the Hands puts you in the room with one of most original singer/songwriters working today, sets up his instruments and lets him play. The result is pure Banhart, cleaned up and enhanced in good ways, and otherwise left alone. If you liked Oh Me Oh My, and maybe even if you didn't, you're going to love Rejoicing in the Hands.