Devendra Banhart’s debut is a mixture of song fragments, whistles, handclaps, chants, and some of the most oddly effecting, full-blown songs you are likely to hear all year. Recorded on four-track — and occasionally on ye olde answering machine — the music rolls out slowly and sometimes abrasively, jarring listeners with high-pitched vocals and highly visceral imagery. Banhart’s bizarre juxtapositions can describe something like flesh in a way that makes it seem like it’s a foreign entity, with vocal tics fluttering in the upper registers of all that is dreamy and then quickly switching to a panic-stricken vibrato.
If any of this sounds familiar, then think Marc Bolan in the early years. We’re not talking about the Marc Bolan pop god/genius who put the boogie back into rock in the early ’70s, though. We’re talking about the wizard-loving, unicorn-doting barefoot Bolan who opted for the longer Tyrannosaurus Rex nom de plume. In fact, percussive vocal tricks that Banhart uses on “The Charles C. Leary” are a dead ringer for Bolan’s on “She Was Born to Be My Unicorn” from his 1969 LP, Unicorn. Perhaps the only other performer worth noting with regards to Banhart is Karen Dalton. This unsung vocalist sang like Billie Holiday, drank like Bukowski, and eventually ended up Dumpster-diving to get by before she died a beggar’s death. You can hear her vocal quavers in some of Banhart’s songs like “Hey Miss Cane” and “The Thumbs,” which is basically a variation on Dalton’s take on “Ribbon Bow.” Banhart is pretty forthcoming about his influences, so it’s no news to anyone except music critics and psych fans whose jaws will drop to see that a 21-year-old singer-songwriter cares more about the tragic folkies of yore than Nebraska emo bands or electro-punk.
Pointless references aside, this record would mean absolutely nothing if it wasn’t filled with strikingly beautiful, slippery songs that register in the brain like old favorites within minutes. It might also lose people even quicker — sounding lost and regained and then controlled and spun out within the same song is a difficult task, but it is done here repeatedly. It’s a jagged listen. But anyone who has ever heard Syd Barrett, Skip Spence, and the devotees thereof can tell you that capturing the essence of inspiration with something much darker is a rarity. Just like you can usually spot a liar from across the street, you can spot the spirit under this record; it’s alive and it bleeds, just like the rest of us. Some songs like “Michigan State” and “Little Monkey” are all wounded melody, adrift in space. Others like “Lend Me Your Teeth” and “Nice People” are jarringly frightening. Sure, it’s just a voice and an acoustic guitar — but there is a direct line here that is not necessarily built upon basic, great songwriting. It has more to do with channeling a voice, harnessing it, and giving it wings. —