Devendra Banhart has already racked up his share of critical acclaim, so it's probably unnecessary to tell his story or list his virtues and points of separation from his (sort of nonexistent) peers. But how refreshing to hear Rejoicing in the Hands, his second proper album, in this cultural context -- an album just dripping with (surprise!) sincerity, devoid of irony or reference-heavy posturing. And not only is this album sans the requisite pomo dose of irony, it's also not at all a regressive "return" to idyllic, pre-irony '60s folk, which would be just as bad. At 22 years old, the young man is completely an original.
Rejoicing in the Hands is mostly just Banhart and his acoustic guitar, a formula that, unless you're a Beck or Nick Drake type, is cornball shit waiting to happen. It's so easy to have this melancholic, acoustic singer-songwriter stuff sound cheesily sentimental (Red House Painters) or overwhelmingly underwhelming (the Mountain Goats). Yet, there are almost no inferior songs on this album (the album was culled from the 57 songs Banhart originally sumbitted; those that didn't make the cut should be released later this year), and the warmly reverby recording is positively Skip Spence-like, circa Oar-era. Young God founder Michael Gira is right when he writes that these songs sound like they could have been done in the '30s. Or the '60s, or the '70s, or the early '90s, for that matter.
"This is the Way," the album's opener, establishes the plaintive tone that's maintained throughout, with Banhart's uniquely confident and weirdly elfin voice floating over very pretty guitar strumming. It's like hearing early Palace Brothers all over again, without the "cool country" posture. "Will is my Friend" conjures dusty Western roads and great depression, ending with Banhart trying to forget it all with a couple glasses of wine. Songs like "This Beard is for Siobhan" evolve from typical folk chord progressions into saloon stompers. "Fall" and "Todo Los Dolores" are gems of spine-tingling folk perfection.
Banhart's songwriting is both a strength and a weakness. He always comes across powerfully because of his bizarre voice, but his psych lyrics are often full of whimsical self-indulgence, with oblique, (escapist?) hippie-inflected tales about animals and nature. That has a lot in common with the pseudo-psych visual art coming out of San Francisco right now, which happens to be where Banhart got his start. The childish whimsy of "Rejoicing in the Hands" and "Insect Eyes" is a little transparently Syd Barrett-influenced, although he sings the sugary fairy tales earnestly.
Still, the unexpected and haunting chord changes and legitimately gorgeous lyrics of "Insect Eyes" locate Banhart on Barrett's level, hopefully minus Syd's dementia and egregious drug abuse. And when Banhart sings "Raise your head, sweet young thing" on "Autumn Child," the album's finale, I want it to be a battle cry for pop's New Sincerity. Don't hold your breath, though. Besides, I'm not really sure anyone else could carry it off like Banhart.
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