Monday, June 23, 2003

Never Been to Michigan State

The older you get the more you realize how few absolutes exist in life. But one that I think is pretty indisputable is that I've never heard a bad CD by a guy named Devendra. My favorite feisty Garden Girl (man is that moniker ever gonna go over well with her) asked me a few weeks back if I had heard on NPR's Weekend Edition, the story about a rather unique artist whose music defied description. I hadn't. So she forwarded me information from the NPR website about Devendra Banhart, a 21-year-old singer/songwriter who according to the story has drawn comparisons with Billie Holiday, Beck, and Tiny Tim.

And rightfully so.

This isn't an artist you can exactly pin down. His vocals are as unconventional as the decision the Coca Cola Company made years back in deciding to mess with success and history and change the flavor of the most familiar cola taste all in the name of being something new. Banhart's songs are free flowing and refuse to follow the familiar verse, verse, refrain, verse, etc. structure of most pop songs. Instead he just sort of sings stuff that seems to come from left field and beyond.

His first CD, Oh Me Oh My The Way The Day Goes By The Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs Of The Christmas Spirit by its very title sounds like pretentious noodling from a college lit major. But it's really not. Instead it's strangely effective. Apparently Banhart recorded the songs at various times at home on people's answering machines and whatnot. The low tech production of the songs only adds to their impact.

Upon first listen I thought Banhart must be singing his thoughts stream of consciousness style. But the stream that flows is so clever as to ultimately make one wonder the possibility that anyone could be capable to ever think in such a cryptic yet revealing way. And the disc blew me away unlike any since I heard that other must hear DIY homemade effort, Liz Phair's debut effort, Exile in Guyville. Besides their low production values the two discs share another thing in common: another skewed way of thinking that if you really listen and ponder will change the way you exist in a never to go back, never to be the same again, manner.

I knew right away I was listening to something wholly original but the first song to capture my undivided attention was the disc's seventh track, "Michigan State." Like many of other Banhart songs the lyrics on their surface might not make much sense. "My friend has my favorite teeth/They bend backwards when she breaths/And whistles/And sweetness is as sweetness was/And breeze is as a blackbird buzz/And my love has my favorite ears/They lean forward when she hears..." Upon listening I sat there awake (as usual and sometimes even when it matters!) hearing the song and thinking about it. Maybe he wrote it on the spot singing whatever (and whistling along and plunking out sounds on his guitar both familiar in their comfort and as foreign in their confession) came to mind but I hesitate to think anyone could continue to exist with such pure and undiluted thoughts. Banhart has the uncanny literary ability to write lyrics that make more and less sense upon repeated listening. If I were to attempt the same thing it would come out something like, "Rain in your troubles and then you can put away your pickle" and that would just be silly.

My first exposure to the concept of art was many years back when my grade school class was taking a field trip to the Walker Art Center. I was so excited, waiting with great anticipation the chance to be impressed by all the fancy paintings and dazzling colors. I've never been more disappointed. It was a modern art exhibit and all it looked like to my 10-year-old eyes was some random splotches dabbed on to canvass. Expecting impressionist pictures what I saw instead looked like the Japanese flag. It took me years of formal education and book learning to realize that some people have the gift of simplicity and in that gift comes the ability to somehow inherently know just where to put a splotch or two for maximum effect.

On Banhart's other CD The Black Babies (UK) he continues to bleat and whistle and express his insides in his own odd style. The opening track contains a great great moment that Garden Girl played for me on the way to last week's Wilco's concert where Banhart squeaks out the words "tickle me" in such a great great way it restored my faith in humanity if only for an instant.

And the weird thing was prior to Wilco's appearance the music blaring out the speakers on the stage, weaving its way over the gathering crowd was my favorite Devandra Banhart song, "Michigan State." There are a few moments in life, now and then (and again) when you know things are the way they are supposed to be. This was one of them. Garden Girl and I looked around. Our little not so secret discovery was playing for all to hear and to share in that was joy beyond the given meaning of such things. No matter how hard I try I can't stop listening and my hand to God I'll go to my grave wondering why exactly that is.

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