February 25, 2003

Oh My... how wonderful!

Can I credit Devendra Banhart with the invention of a new musical genre? Because I really cannot imagine any points of comparison with his album, which might be best categorized (although the typical music-journalist project of classification is itself rendered useless by Oh Me Oh My...) as surreal folk. Yes, his guitar is reminiscent of Nick Drake's on Pink Moon; yes, his distinct voice, now shrill warble, now low croak, has its predecessors; but I cannot think of another album which has so deftly expanded upon the possibilities of its genre "container" as Oh Me Oh My....

Without any technical bells and whistles, without any attempts at cross-genre fusion, Banhart has crafted his own form of innovation--one more dependent on his almost bizarre originality than any concerted effort to shock. This is undoubtedly what Michael Gira (formerly of seminal noise rock band Swans) saw in young Banhart: a musical singularity. In a way, Banhart is one of a few artists working within the same general framework that are pulling a lot of weight in the industry now. These include Phil Elvrum, ring leader of the Microphones, whose deep ruminations on death and mortality, through the filter of a sort of "avant-folk" are never short of brilliant, and also the local Kallikak Family, who have mixed folk with drum machines and tape hiss to stunning effect.

Although Oh Me Oh My... has 22 songs, ranging in "subject" ("theme" might do better, or sometimes the ambiguous "tone") from whistling teeth to bird drawings to Michigan, the album's scatterbrained organization works to its merit. Rather than detracting from the holistic listening experience, the album's piecemeal quality conjures up a fragmented fantasia of disembodied dentures, anamorphic animals, and spider love.

Banhart's voice sounds like a bayou phantasm or perhaps one of the lost souls of Final Fantasy VI's Phantom Forest. His delivery is never straightforward, always opting for an organic delivery over slavish conformity to the rhythm. Speaking of the rhythm, Banhart's occasional use of hand claps as the rhythm section really deepens the tracks blessed with them. Combine that with his multitracked vocals (which never merely replicate each other, instead wavering in and out of unison) and you have ghost-bop.

I felt that the album ran a little too long (it seemed to contain a backlog of every song Banhart had ever written), but if I were faced with the decision of which tracks to cut, I would be dumbfounded. They range from enchanting to eerie, but never venture into the realm of blandness.

Along with the little-known Kallikak Family and Currituck County, Devendra Banhart is staging a quiet revolution against the folk mainstream, which has tended toward sentimentality in recent years. All three show that lyrical content and musical convention can be tweaked to fascinating and, more importantly, innovative results. With an eye to the past--Skip James comes to mind--Banhart has created something fresh, enthralling, and entirely new; in short, a CD for the ages.