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Devendra Banhart's Surreal Sound

Banhart's debut album, Oh Me Oh My..., distributed by Young God Records.
Banhart's debut album, Oh Me Oh My..., distributed by Young God Records.

At 21, singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart has drawn an unusual mix of comparisons: Billie Holiday, Beck, Tiny Tim. His debut album — Oh Me Oh My The Way The Day Goes By The Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs Of The Christmas Spirit — may have an ungainly name, but some critics are calling it a timeless and irresistible recording.

Rarely more than a minute or two long, Banhart's songs can be hard to decipher, yet strangely moving. In "Roots," the second track on his album, he sings, "When the roots of the tree/Are as cold as can be/When the wind and the sea/are the moth and the bee." Banhart calls the song both a mantra and a poem. His tunes, says NPR's Neda Ulaby, tend to meditate on the human need for nature and try to counter the postmodern rush of stimuli by presenting scraps of thoughts very simply.

"I'm not a very good guitar player, " Barnhart says. " I think I just play one or two chords in all my songs, but I think it suffices to carry the lyrics and carry the melody."

Most of the songs on Oh Me Oh My... were recorded anywhere but a studio. Some were left as messages on friends' answering machines while Banhart was living in Paris seeking out the French music he loves. Others were taped on a handheld recorder. All are sung in Banhart's stirring, whispered voice, which Ulaby says is unlike anything you're likely to have heard before.

Lynn Rapoport, cultural critic for San Francisco's Bay Guardian, agrees, saying it's fruitless to try to pin Banhart down or compare him to other musicians: "It's so much more about, 'Why does this music make me feel like I'm experiencing visitations by angry ghosts or someone else's nightmares?'"

Banhart has achieved cult status on many college radio stations, attracting listeners who find the impenetrability of his lyrics to be part of his appeal. For his next album, Banhart is thinking of recording some songs in Spanish with his mother, who is Venezuelan. And this time, he'll lay down the tracks in a studio.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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