A bit of fate to mention before the review:
A few months back, I was scrounging through the remaining CDs
(lots of Celine Dion and not much else) of a closing record
store, the only one with a decent used section in my deep South
and very sleepy military town, when a guy noticed my Swans t-shirt.
He said heíd just had Michael Gira produce a record by a weird
folk singer at his studio. According to this guy, Gira drank
like a fish while never seeming the slightest bit drunk and
showed some real control freak tendencies, all the while exuding
the sort of genius that withers the weak. My accoster mumbled
something about the folk singer sounding sort of angelic and
fragile. Well, if that wasnít strange enough, I then received
the very record he was talking about (Iím guessing) in the mail
to review. Weird little world, I think.
On paper, itís enough to make a well-thought person cringe:
hippie-bred, early-twenty-something, gypsy eccentric writes
self consciously weird little ditties and sings them accompanied
mostly on an acoustic guitar. You can imagine the long line
of Syd Barrett-lite wankers trailing off into the distance,
with this guy the latest to front the line. Reality, it seems,
is a very different bird indeed. Rejoicing in the Hands,
Banhartís second album (the
first was a lo-fi deal recorded on a tape recorder in somebody
elseís living room and it had to be somebody elseís Ďcause Banhart
didnít have a living room), is quite possibly a quiet masterpiece.
The album, issued on Young God Records, hits you in successive
waves. First to be noticed is Banhartís voice. Itís a quavering,
vulnerable thing. Poised somewhere in the Mark Linkous/Wayne
Coyne category of bruised sensitivity, his pipes donít just
produce sounds but feeling. Regardless of the actual lyrics
(more on those later), thereís a sense of pain of the type of
hurt one experiences just by being alive and a little too open
to the world. Itís sort of a newborn kitten/ baby chick variety
of too soft, and it carries with it the hope that something
this fragile will be lucky and live. Thereís a tightrope to
be walked here, since terminal cuteness or tweedom can only
be just around the corner. Yet, Banhart pulls off the balancing
act. His voice sounds sincere not self conscious, and it seems
honest and not an affectation. In fact, his voice effected this
reviewer much the way Ornette Colemanís saxophone did on first
hearing as something distinct and profound, with a bit of the
alien thrown in to keep you a bit on the outside.
The music hits next. Most tracks are just voice and guitar.
The instrument sounds just as vulnerable as his voice, yet is
also inventive and playful. Thereís a soulful, funky quality
in what is basically his rudimentary folk picking. Many of these
tracks would demand interest simply as instrumentals. Accompaniment
is sparse with a female voice here and the sound of strings
there. It lends a melancholy and somehow orchestrative air to
the proceedings. The production by Michael Gira gives it a latter-day
Swans feel: sort of angelic, amorphous and slightly sinister.
Yet the melodies and songwriting have an old blues or Americana
feel: a little Robert Johnson, a bit early Dylan, and a smidgen
of Tiny Tim are in the mix. Syd Barrett is also a touch point,
as these deceptively simple songs have a fractured savant echo
Then, itís the lyrics that make an impression. Thereís a childlike
quality, as topics seem to revolve around the idiosyncratic
and an almost insular perspective. Thereís also a little mental
ward babble which doesnít come across forced or self conscious.
Itís more of a stream-of-consciousness vibe, as if you were
privy to the private thoughts of someone who didnít know you
were listening. Add to this the occasionally sensuous image
or cracked metaphor and one is left with songs that seem meditations
on something all of us know, but have yet to put words to.
Finally, a note on the sleeve artwork. Child like, folk art
drawings, and lyrics jammed together like schizophrenic doodlings
adorn the CD sleeve. This adds to the personal, idiosyncratic
Still doesnít sound like a quiet, minor little masterpiece?
Give a listen and see. The ears of this reviewer are jaundiced
and not a little diminished by time and feedback. Yet, at first,
second, and even third listening, this album sings. In fact,
it seems so new and unique that I was a little jealous of not
seeing it coming, of having heard of Banhart before my fateful
record store encounter. God bless Gira for giving Mr. Banhart