With his trippy, logorrheic drones and hipster irony, Devendra Banhart, a San Francisco-based former art student, is helping to push forward folk music. The fascination with his work comes not so much from his roughhewn DIY talent, but from his unique view of antecedents and their music. Whereas the likes of Sandy Bull, Bert Jansch and Leo Kottke all held respectful attitudes of imitation and meaning, Banhart and his Blakean universes of symbols are obeisant to no one but himself. As with Joanna Newsome, Preston Reed, Animal Collective, Dead Raven Choir and Jack Rose, Banhart attempts to use lush metaphors to point out their emptiness. But while his music can be movingly effective, it can also be slipshod and narcissistic.
The consistency of themes, styles and artistic purpose in his songs is no accident: Black Babies consists of leftovers from Oh Me Oh My; Rejoicing and Niño Rojo were recorded at the same time. Banhart creates with an intense inwardness; as with the work of Leadbelly, Daniel Johnston, Michael Hurley and Marc Bolan, the music is private, unyielding and atmospheric. The singing, as befits a man who has drifted and been homeless, is full of anguish and plaintive wailings, trippily moving in and out of the acoustic guitar melodies, unsure at times, but for the most part quaveringly authentic. Recorded on a 4-track and later augmented with accompaniment, the songs are fearless and confident. On the debut, a homespun song cycle adeptly blends stark, dreamy bitter truths. This is the sound of someone who has only temporarily weathered the storm.
The EP lacks the textured smoothness of the later work but compensates with spooky self-indulgence. Occasional shrillness and sorrowful Blind Willie McTell strumming adds gallows humor to the proceedings. Banhart moans and whistles his way through these frosty love songs, songs about an affair done with hobo mythologizing.
Rejoicing and Niño Rojo are heartfelt outpourings of off-rhymes, concern for children, disappointment with cities and more esoteric concerns. Unfortunately, what is harrowing and mournful and intense for one person is ennui to another. The songs are better, and the singing has grown by leaps in expressiveness, but there is unwillingness to alter the ambience. As with Woody Guthrie — who he resembles in his distaste for fakes, urban nightmares and oppressive regimes — Banhart never backs off from his fractured fairy tales. Like Jandek, another possible musical analog, Banhart can reach down into depths we only imagine we can reach. Rejoicing is more musical than Niño Rojo — a few of the songs share the lyrical, haunting sadness of Phil Ochs in his decline — but both albums celebrate the tough-minded grandeur often found in idiosyncratic American artists: a singer and his guitar with miles and miles of cold road ahead. Banhart is essentially a private and odd man talking to himself about the universality of failed love. He is at once imprisoned and free.