Semi-Original Pirate Material
He wasn’t, if you believe the press release, really going to release this record at all. The story goes that teenaged Devendra Banhart was just messing around with his guitar, writing strange little folk songs and singing them to himself; his friends heard them and pushed him to document them on broken little four-track recorders; somehow, somebody got the tapes to Michael Gira, the dude behind Swans and Young God Records, who loved this guy’s stuff so much that he released it as a record.
It’s churlish to question such a beautiful inspirational story. After all, Banhart might be that Gramsciian organic intellectual that the indie musical crowd has been looking for all these many years. He might be a noble savage, a diamond in the rough, a Dylan for our time, a new paradigm in modern music, arriving fully-grown and just bizarre enough to start a revolution. . . .
Well, it’s not going to start anything like a revolution. No one is going to listen to this guy, with his voice that alternates between Tiny Tim’s high quaver and Colin Blunstone’s wistful British Invasion introspection (often multitracked with itself) (and often escalating into full-on punk-rock freakout), and his spare pretty acoustic guitar backing, and his surreal folk songs that celebrate red lagoons and pumpkinseeds and pseudopods, and think “that’s what I want to do.” I’d be willing to put money on this . . . no, actually, I wouldn’t. One never knows. So yeah, maybe this is the cusp of a new indiefolk revolution. Maybe the future is filled with bearded 21-year-olds singing things like “If I were more like city girls / If I were more like fancy girls / And thanks little bee, think of me”. In which case . . . well, let’s just say I’ve got a fortified bunker filled with XTC and P.Funk and Buffalo Daughter.
Not that I hate this. On the contrary, it’s refreshing to hear someone who’s so out there. Banhart does indeed sing about some weird shit. Teeth, for example. The beginning of “Michigan State” talks about an acquaintance: “My friend has my favorite teeth / They bend backwards when she breathes”. The fact that this friend has very little to do with the song’s chorus about how Banhart wants to live in Michigan is not a problem in context, nor is the fact that the very next song is called “Lend Me Your Teeth”. Snails are also a recurring theme, as is the hopeless quest for love. One is tempted to say that he’d find a lot more love if he stopped singing about teeth and snails (and his mother), but one will refrain.
But a lot of it is just creepy. When he starts screaming “You certainly are nice people!”, and then pulls back to croon “With your white-ass suit / And your lion tattoos” and then goes back to screaming again, I don’t get a big smile on my face—I just get skeeved out and hit the fast-forward button. I used to try to love stuff like Zappa and Beefheart, but I gave up about 10 years ago and my life’s been just fine.
It’s not even all that wildly original, because I don’t think that this is just coming out of a vacuum. Banhart is not some kind of musical savant—it’s pretty clear that he’s well-versed in lots of different kinds of music. I hear “influences” here: not just the ones Young God told me to look for (Nick Drake, Karen Dalton, Daniel Johnston) but also the Elephant 6 pop collective (especially Circulatory System and Neutral Milk Hotel) and Guided by Voices and the Shaggs and about 50 others. And if it turns out that Banhart has never heard some of these influences, then that just proves my point. Somehow. I’m not sure exactly why, but there you have it.
I think he’s just working too hard to be an untutored genius. Not to be too boring, but I like Banhart much more when he’s in nice-song mode. Some of these melodies are quite stunning, and it is here where I think he really shines. “Pumpkinseeds” is a spiderweb of a song: it seems fragile, but it’s pretty and unbreakable and very very sticky: “There’s a lot of love / But not the kind I need / Have you ever made a soup / Out of pumpkinseeds?” somehow, against all odds, actually works as a couplet. Of course, he tries to ruin it later with the crappy lines “There’s a lot of birds that people like to draw / There’s a lot of sees I wish I’d never saw”, but even that works, against all odds. When he wants to, like here and on “Soon Is Good” and the sea-shanty “The Charles C. Leary” and a few others, he’s a brave new talent to whom we should all pay attention.
But that’s the deal with Devendra Banhart: we have to take the pretty with the ugly, the poignant with the trivial, the “hey look at me I’m so weird” with the “don’t look now but I’m actually a wonderful songwriter”. The sweet whistling accompaniment on one song becomes portentous and creepy on the next, and it’s all part and parcel, and there would be no point in trying to limit Banhart to one or the other kind of music. So what if he’s not all that wildly original? So what if sometimes he’s kind of shrieking in a high weird voice to the point that you really wish your ears would explode so you never have to hear anything so awful again? So what if sometimes these songs have hooks like George Gervin and make you get all smily and sad and confused by beauty? He is large, he contains multitudes, leave him alone.
Where this all goes in the future, I don’t know. I’m interested, but I don’t hold out much hope. It could go a lot of different ways. I kind of hope it does.