Devendra Banhart is one of those intrepid eccentrics who lets loose rare nuggets of uncomfortable dream-brilliance one moment, and the next lays on art-school blather and clunky melodies that sound shoddily made up on the spot. The 22-year-old's lack of an internal editor--that force that keeps most of us average and complacent, keeps us from cooing like Banhart in a broken, vibrating falsetto channeled from Billie Holiday, and dedicating folk songs to the state of Michigan--is the key to his musical gift. Because when Banhart's creativity and whimsicality happen to be on, songs about teeth transmit more emotion than your average love song.
It's clear, then, why Michael Gira (of the Swans and Angels of Light, and proprietor of Young God Records) encouraged Banhart to release a selection of his acoustic demos as a debut, Oh Me Oh My...The Way the Day Goes By the Sun is Setting Dogs are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit, rather than make a new studio recording. Even though Banhart says some of these tracks were recorded on an answering machine, many are so immediate, so intimate, they sound sung only to you, in the dark, and it's easy to fall in love under those circumstances. That other tracks are bluntly aimless is part of the charm: It's important to hear souls like Banhart with spontaneity and unself-consciousness intact, as if live, as if improvised.
Better, in fact, is actually to hear Banhart live, a chance that'll be ours at the Gypsy Tea Room on April 17, with Angels of Light. Banhart's acoustic blues/faerie-folk hybrid has provoked comparisons to a broad range of '60s folkies, including Donovan and Vashti Bunyan, and on the true-but-not-flattering side, Tiny Tim. But the shaky androgyny of Banhart's voice makes him most mistakable for two late greats, cult singer Karen Dalton and Marc Bolan (in pre-glam Tyrannosaurus Rex). Onstage, Banhart sometimes plays so softly the back of the room doesn't know he's up there. Head to the front for the full effect of his free-spirited folkie vibe, cross-legged, wan, bearded--and sometimes brilliant.
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