REVIEW: Devendra Banhart: Oh Me Oh My...
Devendra Banhart: Oh Me Oh My... [Young God, 2002]
Three words? twisty witchy songs
Oh Me Oh My does not begin with the voice: it begins with finger-picking on an acoustic guitar. "Tick Eats the Olives" is a sprightly little tune, forward moving, dancing along. The solo guitar is joined by handclaps and oohs, simple and circular. Forty seconds.
This is what Banhart says about it:
A woman is staring at you, and she’s crying, but they are not tears they are olives she cries, but though she cries, she is not worried, for every time she cries one of her olive tears a tick crawls out from the back of the lower part of her head and (very quickly) crawls up her cheek and (very quickly) eats the olive.
These are not the lyrics: there are none. This is simply the thinking of the man that finger-picks, the imagining behind the hands that clap.
It's strange, yes - but what makes Oh Me Oh My so special is that the strangeness is utterly compelling. When Banhart begins to sing in earnest on the second track, "Roots (If the Sky Were a Stone)" he sounds like something weird and warbling: cracked, mad or magic. On these twenty-one songs, the twenty-one year-old songwriter makes witch music, double-tracked vocals summoning twisted, tragic images from the delicate strains of his guitar. Some may recall the fragility of Nick Drake or the sour singing of Marc Bolan in Tyrannosaurus Rex, but to me these tracks evoke the smudged and already-broken landscapes of Billie Holiday. Banhart sings not of his own splintering life, but to the splintered world he lives in.
The imagery of Oh Me Oh My is that of scattered seeds and fading memories: teeth, lagoons and Israel. The songs hiss with four-track authenticity, most clocking in at less that two minutes. In such little time, however, Banhart finds the time to coax mad visions. "Legless Love" surges forward with long guitar strides, snaps and a claps; Banhart - blankvoiced - sings "I buried your hair in a bed of swords, I buried your legs in a knife-less snake". The guitar on "Miss Cain" flutters and doubles back like a flock of black birds. Banhart sneers like someone who cares, who is trying to find peace in the slow rot of age.
"Nice People" is the cackling counterpoint to The Doors' "People are Strange", soft and trembling until Banhart's voice and guitar lunge forward: "you certainly are nice people / in your white ass suit and lion tattoos". "Pumpkin Seeds" on the other hand, is an altogether lovely folk song - like something off of Iron & Wine's Creek Drank the Cradle - four minutes of love, regrets and sketches of birds.
At the heart of Oh Me Oh My, there is a shapeshifter. He shifts from snake to bush to man, from lover to hag. Banhart's is music for the folk on the street-corners, for the ones who live in the trees, for the ones in large, empty offices. It doesn't break windows - it creeps through them. And it paints on the walls.