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Young God Records / Revolver, 2004
Acoustic folk isn't a style I'm particularly wise on. But it's surely a genre that, more than most, needs no background knowledge to be able to criticise. After all it traditionally lives outside history, being based on one-to-one communication and storytelling, passed around by oral tradition instead of mass media. All you need is a voice, an acoustic guitar, and some songs. Devendra Banhart has enough qualities in each of those departments to establish himself as a main player in modern folk music.
To start with, that voice of his has the clarity of psych folksters like Tim Buckley or Nick Drake. He decorates phrases with a fragile quiver, which might be a mannerism but is endearing rather than irritating. His simple acoustic guitar has a rich sound, and his eclectic styles of playing it vary from the simple baby-steps tunes of "This Is The Way" and "The Body Breaks" to the virtuosic twiddling of "A Sight to Behold" and "Poughkeepsie".
Such fresh music gives life to a stewpot of colourful lyrics, which, like the music, seem to be tossed off with no effort at all. They range from visionary hippy proclamations to whimsical fluff. On occasion he gets as surreal as Syd Barrett ("the daughter of a man is a mammal"), but Banhart's much more on the cuddly side than the disturbed side. He still has enough of a foot planted on our own planet to keep us consistently entertained. Even on "Todo Los Dolores" when he gets the first lines wrong and restarts the song, he shrugs it off with a laugh, whereas when Syd did the same thing it was distinctly uncomfortable to listen to.
While his voice and guitar are lush enough that the simple acoustic stuff alone sounds complete, the album isn't all finger-in-ear crooning. In classic hippy fashion, his sound also encompasses whirling psychedelic arrangements, like the tangled Indian flavoured "A Sight To Behold" and the chaos of wild strings and crazy vocals of "When the Sun Shone on Vetiver". The most interesting song is the dark and complex "Insect Eyes", with a hypnotic drone reminiscent of some of Tim Buckley's best. Finally, "Autumn's Child" dispenses with the guitar altogether, as stately piano chords alone give the album a sparse and melancholy conclusion.
June 15, 2006