The newest stars of rock ‘n’ roll aren’t lead guitar players, sexy front men, the quiet bass players, or the anonymous drummers. The new rock star elite are producers, the frazzled geniuses twiddling knobs, guiding and defining a band’s vision. Dave Fridmann, Nigel Godrich, Rick Rubin, and Steve Albini are all names that bands eagerly seek for their skill, sound and of course, the prestige their name lends to sell copy. I would argue that we are going to see the return of album-oriented rock that marked some of the great albums that came out of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some of the most critically acclaimed albums of the last few years have been complete statements. OK Computer, The Soft Bulletin and Is This It? if anything, are unified by a sound is completely unto itself.
However, the last few years have also seen another new trend emerging more quietly from the rock underground. A new breed of singer/songwriter has emerged, each with their own distinct voice, moving them beyond the cliché coffeehouse or emo tag that lesser artists would be stuck with. Arguably following the path forged by the enigmatic, name changing nomad, Will Oldham, musicians like Nina Nastasia, Iron & Wine, Papa M, and Cat Power are solitary figures cutting making a unique impression on the music scene.
Enter Devendra Banhart. After cutting numerous songs on a four-track strictly for himself, his friends persuaded him to take these songs and shop them around to labels. Michael Gira took a handful of these crude recordings and released them. Oh Me, Oh My…, Banhart’s debut, won a small, but faithful following and garnered massive critical acclaim. Preparing for Banhart’s sophomore effort, Gira was faced with a difficult decision. Does he spend money and put Banhart into a professional studio to create a more polished sound from his early rudimentary recordings, or does he let Banhart continue to record in his lo-fi manner, but run of the risk of pigeonholing the artist? A perfect middle ground was found, and in a house on the border of Georgia and Alabama border, Banhart cut thirty-two songs, that will be released over two albums this year. The 16 songs that appear on Rejoicing in the Hands, are so striking in their sound and so original, that no producer could’ve have imagined them. If anything, they affirm Devendra Banhart as one of the most unique musical talents to emerge in quite some time.
Rejoicing in the Hands demands patience and rewards it. Armed only with a guitar and a voice that truly defies description—falling somewhere between Marc Bolan’s high wire treble and Jamie Stewart’s aching tension—Banhart’s magic lies in subtle payoffs these songs offer. Inadvertently, Rejoicing in the Hands also celebrates the power that can be found simply in a voice and is a reminder that sometimes studio embellishments can take away more than they add.
The emotional power of the album sneaks up on the listener unsuspectingly. “Poughkeepsie” starts as a heavily finger-picked sung number until truly heart-shaking strings enter, creating something at once mesmerizing and powerful. The innocence and pure sincerity of “Will Is My Friend” is at once humorous and undeniably moving. The title track finds Banhart sharing a beautiful duet with ‘60s folk performer Vashti Bunyan. Closing track “Autumn’s Child” finds Banhart at his most vulnerable. With a gently lilting piano, the song softly unfolds into a stunning third act with subtle backing vocals and additional instrumentation that enters and leaves with a whisper, but leaves the largest of impressions.
The intimacy the recording session brings to the album is simply striking. Listen closely and you’ll hear cicadas in the background, the creak of floorboards and in “Todo Los Dolores” the laughter of Banhart and his players as they flub the beginning. Rejoicing in the Hands is an album that above all celebrates honesty. Devendra Banhart gives himself so wholly and so without artifice or posture, that even the most jaded of listeners can’t help but be awed. Simply, Rejoicing in the Hands is one of the best albums of the year.
// Notes from the Road
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