DEVENDRA BANHARTby David Shirley
Oh Me Oh My... (Young Gods Records)
The recent release of D. A. Pennebaker’s the Complete Monterey Pop Festival (Criterion Collection, 2002) provides a bright, garish, furiously kinetic documentation of the emerging pop-rock scene during the summer of 1967. The documentary’s most revelatory moment is hidden away on an alternate track at the end of the outtakes disc, where Tiny Tim, the underground court jester of the late-1960s counterculture, gives an impromptu performance beneath the heavy shadows of the festival green room. Snuggling his ukulele tenderly to his chest, his long-beaked face eerily illuminated by a single flickering candle, Tiny gushes his way nervously through a mini-set of defiantly cheerful musical chestnuts. On the final chorus of “Laugh, Clown, Laugh,” he offers the backstage dignitaries a disturbingly prophetic corrective to the cheerful harmonies and guitar-bashing adolescent bravado outside the tent:
I may make the world be merry,
But I can’t hide the truth from myself.
But no matter what happens,
I must go on acting, acting, acting.
Laugh, clown, laugh.
If Pennebaker ever decides to film a modern-day sequel to his celebrated documentary, I’m pushing for Devendra Banhart to occupy center-stage in the backstage green room. The 22-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist shares a lot more with his late-’60s predecessor than a quivering falsetto and sparse, self-accompanied arrangements. On his debut release Oh Me Oh My…, Banhart has pieced together a quirky, idiosyncratic musical universe that combines the joy, terror, and random curiosity of a typical childhood dream. Like Tiny Tim, Banhart’s most effective performances evoke the image of a lost little boy whistling in the dark, alternately shrinking from the monsters hidden in the shadows and losing himself completely in the pleasure of the melody. The playfulness and wonder of Banhart’s music may not ultimately redeem the heartbreak and horror that’s always lurking just below the surface of his songs, but it’s never totally consumed by them either.
And Banhart is always stubbornly playful. There’s the constant confusion in the lyrics of reality and fantasy, human and animal, male and female, animate and inanimate. There are the singsong melodies and the endless wordplay. There are the 22 songs and the 22 words that make up the title (will he go for 23 next year?); the whistles, hand claps, and knee slaps that accompany many of the songs; and the recording’s ridiculously carefree production quality. (It’s not difficult to believe, hearing the roar of a motorcycle whizzing by toward the end of “The Charles C. Reilly,” that some of the songs were, as Banhart claims, recorded on an answering machine tape.)
A native of Los Angeles who also spent part of his childhood in San Francisco and Caracas, Venezuela, Banhart migrated to New York City in 2002 (reportedly to catch a Damo Suzuki show at Tonic). Shortly after arriving he began to record cassette versions of the songs that would become Oh Me Oh My…, selling them for a dollar apiece on the street. One of the tapes eventually found its way to ex-Swans vocalist Michael Gira, who quickly signed Banhart to his Young Gods label and released the unique but proudly unpolished folk recording.
Banhart is quick to give credit—and lay claim—to an impressively eclectic list of musical mentors from the 1960s folk revival. From Mississippi John Hurt, Banhart borrows the simplicity and restraint of his arrangements and his clean, relaxed finger-picking technique. From folk singer Karen Dalton, the one-time Billie Holiday of McDougal Street, he appropriates an occasionally aching vulnerability on vocals. From Fred Neil, he’s inherited whistled melodies and halting chord patterns.
Top of the list, however, is reserved for Vashti Bunyan, the late-’60s model turned folksinger/songwriter who released the twee-hippy masterpiece Just Another Diamond Day (Philips, 1970; Spinney, 2000) before retiring permanently to the Scottish Hebrides. As the story goes, Banhart once mailed a tape of his songs to Bunyan, who immediately recognized a kindred spirit and mailed back her encouragement.
There’s certainly plenty for Bunyan to identify with on Oh Me Oh My…, particularly in the two artists’ shared approach to composition. On classic Diamond Day titles like “Swallow Song” and “Rainbow River,” Bunyan used her lilting melodies and hushed vocals to weave disparate scenes and imagery into a rich, cohesive musical tapestry. The sudden shif
David Shirley and his trusty pickup truck, Old Blue, currently divide their time between Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, Mississippi.