09 August, 2005


"It's like finding home in an old folk song that you've never, ever heard."


Devendra Banhart's history is almost as unique and intiguing as his music. Born in Texas in 1981 and named by an Indian mystic, he spent much of his youth surrounded by poverty after moving to Caracas, Venezuela following his parents' divorce. Moving back to the USA, this time to Los Angeles, he recieved a scholarship to study at the San Francisco Art Institute at the age of just 12. There, his gay roommates asked him to sing a hymn and an Elvis song at their wedding, and Banhart's unconventional musical career had begun. The following years saw him enter a wandering-minstrel period, moving to Paris and back to San Francisco again, recording songs on old 4-track casette recorders and friends' answering machines, and performing anywhere that would have him - bars, cafés, restaurants - with American venues often having to sneak him in as he was not yet 21.

Ultimately, he was discovered by Michael Gira, owner of alternative label Young God Records, who was overwhelmed not only by Banhart's talent, but by his attitude and personality as well: "He's the most genuine, least cynical and calculated artist I've ever known... He's also one of the most innately talented, magical performers I have ever heard." Under Gira's wing, Devendra moved to New York - still homeless, squatting and couch-hopping - to commit his astonishing sound to professional recordings. Since then, the simple power and open honesty of his music has earned him legions of loyal fans and a huge change in fortunes.

Listening to Banhart's albums is like stepping back in time. His life's tale as a homeless, wandering folk singer may sound like an anachronistic story from the 1930s, but that's perfectly appropriate to his old-soul charisma, grass-roots musical style and echo-from-the-past voice. Backed by the picking and strumming of a battered-sounding acoustic guitar, his voice is a rich, tremulous warble - part blue-grass veteran, part seventies hippie, part children's television host. Meanwhile his songwriting contains echoes of the Appalachian Mountains, strains of the Deep South, and more than a whiff of Venezualan exoticness.

Recoicing In The Hands Of The Golden Empress and Niño Rojo are both cut from the same recording sessions. Although released six months apart, they could almost be considered two volumes of the same album. Indeed neither stands out as an offcuts or leftovers album, but rather both contain examples of Banhart's fuller, more developed numbers, interspersed with simpler, smaller tracks which feel more like sketches than songs. But this seems to be the way he writes his music. Whether a structured exploration of a theme, or just a little musical expression of an observation or thought, whether anguished, overjoyed, playful or downright bizarre, Devendra Banhart's songs have an immediacy and unmistakable "olde-worlde" resonance to them.

Gira and the technicians who worked on the albums have been careful not to destroy the rustic reality of the songs in the transition from scratchy, no-budget home-recording to studio polish. The embellishment of Banhart's guitar work on many of the songs, such as lush strings on "It's A Sight To Behold", catchy brass on "We All Know" and a more modern rhythm section on "Be Kind" enhance and enrich the sound. But nothing of the warts-and-all, home-grown feel has been sacrificed. Meanwhile most tracks have been left simple and unadorned, allowing the ancient ghosts that inhabit Devendra's guitar and voice to shine in songs like "Wake Up, Little Sparrow" (a haunting cover of a 1960s children's song), while "Autumn's Child" utilises a devastatingly moody solo piano.

Some have criticised Banhart for his lack of diversity, and it's true that the musical pallette of his recordings to date is limited. However this is a curse plagueing all truly unique artists; their music is so individual, the only thing it can truly be compared to is itself, and thus a cursory listen may leave it all sounding the same. However the currency of artists like Banhart is their subtlety. Give albums like Rejoicing In The Hands and Niño Rojo the time and space they deserve, and every song reveals its own delicate personality, and leaves a gentle but profound effect on the listener.

(out of 5)




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