For a few months in 2002, I lived across the street from Devendra Banhart in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He was my roommate's boyfriend's roommate -- not what you'd call a close friend. But my proximity afforded me early access to what would be Banhart's debut album, which he had recorded straight to four-track. Comprising short songs full of playful, helium crooning and gently picked guitar, Oh Me Oh My sounded magnificently out of time, like something Marc Bolan would've released if he were an Alabama sharecropper in the 1930s. It was pretty clear Banhart was onto something, but I don't think any of us had any idea where it would lead.
We know better now. Banhart has I've-lost-track-of-how-many albums under his belt, including 2005's triumphant, career-defining Cripple Crow. A whole movement -- the somewhat erroneously named "freak folk" -- has sprung up around him. And as has been known to happen in the context of a movement, an unlikely suspect, in this case Banhart's touring guitar player Andy Cabic, performing under the name Vetiver, has come out of nowhere to steal some of the spotlight.
I picked up Vetiver's 2004 self-titled debut at the recommendation of the staff of Other Music in Manhattan. I brought the disc home, got in the proper frame of mind, and was startled to hear an otherworldly folk music come out of the speaker. It was like Banhart's music but spacier and more chilled out, and the singer, Cabic, had a deeper, richer, better voice (traditionally speaking). It wound up being one of my favorite albums of the year.
Cabic still tours with Banhart (wouldn't you?), but he's made a name for himself now, and on Vetiver's follow-up, To Find Me Gone, he's gone some way toward finding his own voice. Gone are some of the more self-consciously "freaky" touches that punctuated -- I wouldn't say marred -- the debut. The songs are sadder and slower and more stretched out. It's the kind of album you make when you start to trust your own voice, the kind of album to listen to on a cross-country bus trip after you've had your heart broken.
The first five songs are basically perfect: the album opens like a stop-motion tulip with "Been So Long," drifts forward with the sliding "You May Be Blue" and the blurred strings of "No One Word," building to the more conventional straight-up folk of "I Know No Pardon," a sad sort of masterpiece and easily the best Cabic-penned song that's been released. To Find Me Gone gets gradually more diffuse and, consequently, less engrossing after the opening suite, but apart from a Johnny Thunders guitar freak-out that hits halfway through "Red Lantern Girls," it's never anything less than gorgeous.
Cabic lacks Banhart's charisma -- if Banhart's debut had just been pretty, he'd probably still be leaving messages at my old apartment about how his electricity had been shut off. But that's okay: our need for good albums is as great or greater than our need for movements, and though it's a slow-burner, To Find Me Gone is one hell of a good album.
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