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SURREAL FOLK BLUES 


Sixteen seconds into "Todo los Dolores," Devendra Banhart loses his cool and starts laughing like he just got the punch line to a joke he heard three days ago. He stops singing the airy Spanish ballad, the finger-picked arpeggio accompaniment ceases, and he cracks up. In the background a few other cackles come over the recording. And after some composing rustle, Banhart starts back up and lets his trembling voice transform the giggle festival into a reverie.

It's a wonderfully lighthearted moment on the 23-year-old singer/songwriter's latest offering of psychedelic folk, Rejoicing in the Hands, and also a candid snapshot of a crop circle of young artists taking cues from '60s and '70s British folk but mirthfully reinventing it on their own terms. For this outpost, the guitars are acoustic, the tempos are moderate to slow, the orchestrations are sparse and the lyrics are most definitely enigmatic. But intertwined in those dressings are truly bizarre lyrical worlds; blues-based backgrounds have pretty much been traded in for circular raga structures or other non-Western forms, the instrumentation is eclectic and everything is delivered with a precocious sincerity of vision that would be insufferably pretentious if it didn't sound like everybody was having a blast.

Each of Banhart's songs is a camera-obscura image of some scene in his overactive imagination. Adding some textural elements to the the threadbare home recordings of his 2002 debut, Oh Me Oh My ..., Rejoicing still, for the most part, relies entirely on guitar and voice. And that is all he really needs, for his quivering articulations of whimsically convoluted songs is a lightheaded rush, like smoking a first cigarette at Mexico City's altitude. On the page, Banhart's songs read like Beckettian sentence dead ends – "The body aches and that ache takes time/ but you'll get over yours and I'll get over mine" – but his phrasing of the line gives that ache a metaphysical pull, as if he's talking less about physical than emotional grief.

The specter of inner turmoil lurks in the background of Banhart's songs like a demon outline in a Goya painting; sometimes it's more pronounced than others. What's disarming is how he uses this murky backdrop as the pool from which all other emotions run. He turns anatomical collage – "Now because my teeth don't bite, I can take them out dancing/ I could take my little teeth out and show them a real good time" – into a joyous reverie, the "real good time" of that line becoming a percussive mantra as Banhart repeats it. A guitar line provides the prayer-dance melody for the title song, a Mother Earth elegy on which Banhart is joined by recently rediscovered '60s folkie Vashti Bunyan. And the giddy "Todo los Dolores" – literally, "all the sorrow" – is one of the happiest songs on the album. Banhart's interest in sadness isn't a pessimist's, however, as his ability to sound the deepest lows, only to return with beatific highs, feels less like misery-wallowing than a giddy interest in all that life can offer.

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More by Bret McCabe

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