I do a lot of writing and research on the creative endeavors of complete strangers, therefore, I do a lot of Googling. When I Googled "Devendra Banhart," I was awarded an astonishing 78,900 results. Keep in mind that, in contrast to "Tortoise," "Nuclear Assault," or "Circle Jerks," the words "Devendra Banhart" will not likely get confused with anything but the artist's moniker. The results were also astonishing because Banhart not that long ago came out of nowhere with a brand of outsider acoustic music steeped equally in the pre-pop skiffle prevalent on the Broadside and Folkways labels in the '50s and '60s, John Fahey, the fried folk of Marc Bolan's early Tyrannosaurus Rex, and an arcane style that is all his own. That he has been so widely embraced may seem odd at first exposure, but Banhart's songwriting is so strong, playful, and commanding that it could endear itself to a surprising variety of listeners, jaded or not.
Less accessible than Nick Drake, to whom he is often compared, Banhart is like a less frustrating Will Oldham (Palace, Bonnie "Prince" Billy) who went ahead and made great albums instead of clogging up the process with pretentious filler. But while Oldham's voice is distinctly his own, Banhart's high-end quiver is indebted to the above-mentioned Bolan.
The story goes that after finishing up at the San Francisco Art Institute, Banhart appointed himself to the full-time position of drifting bard, casually distributing his four-track demos. These demos came to the attention of Michael Gira, proprietor of Young God Records, main man in the Angels of Light, solo artist, and onetime ringleader of the Swans (the earlier incarnations of which can be amusingly credited with some of the more purely violent American music ever made).
Gira was enamored enough to begin a quick succession of Banhart releases, beginning with 2002's Oh Me, Oh My, 2003's The Black Babies, and this year's Rejoicing In the Hands. Banhart's babe-in-the-woods naiveté, genuine originality, and aggressively intimate live performances immediately began to wrangle the hype machine. Rejoicing In the Hands is fuller than its predecessor, with some hand-clap percussion, back-up vocals, layering, and relatively little allegiance to low fidelity. It retains the unearthed-field-recordings-of-undetermined-age feel often assigned to his work, though "The Body Breaks" and "Fall" have strong pop sensibilities.
Folk music may be always associated with acoustic guitars or singer-songwriters, but it was initially termed because it was music "made by folks." Devendra Banhart honors this original intention and adds new moxie and topicality to decades of traditional American music. --Andrew Earles
Devendra Banhart performs at the Hi-Tone Café Thursday, July 1st, with Joanna Newsom and Vetiver.
(Warner Bros. Canada)
I'm a huge fan of Nova Scotia's Richard Terfry, aka Buck 65. His music -- sorta folksy, sorta hip-hop-y, sorta astonishing -- sounds like the frontier of urban cowboys' dreams: It's creaky, nailed together with available materials, and often as beautiful as the echoes, wind, and arid open spaces that surround it. But in contrast to this vast, ingenious, duct-taped, acoustic-instrumental sound, Buck 65's singing/speaking voice is nearly expressionless. He often sounds like he's whispering bedtime stories or confessions in the dead of night to anyone who will listen. It really helps that he happens to be the finest lyricist working right now, a smart and articulate guy in love with words and jokes who can write with compassion, exactitude, and wisdom about his mother's death, his favorite foods, and the last time he cheated on his girlfriend.
Buck 65's last full-length, Talkin' Honky Blues, was my favorite album of 2004. This EP is a 17-minute reminder of things past and things to come: a big rock remix and original take of the Talkin' Honky song about double plays and childhood (where "The whole world was made of wood and smelled like gasoline/The days were at least twice as long and the grass was green"), a Wild West romance with a killer Ennio Morricone-ish hook, one rather nondescript piece of filler, and a live track. Sadly, I don't know anyone who's not a rock critic who's even heard of this guy. Follow their (and Buck's) lead: Be brave and curious. --Addison Engelking