Two albums featuring the elven genius of new folk

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Elf Consciousness

Shining of eye and tenacious of beard, Devendra Banhart appears to have wandered into the contemporary music scene by way of an ancient dream. Forty years ago, in a Greenwich Village backroom, his bohemian invocations of folk and blues might have been more commonplace. But still, you suspect. Banhart would’ve been a happy misfit, a holy fool, too wayward to be easily assimilated.

Half-Texan, half-Venezuelan and wholly inveterate wanderer, Banhart’s free-flowing oddness makes most musical eccentrics seem self-conscious and predictable. A couple of years ago, a clutch of his solo demos appeared as an album?Oh Me Oh My?and introduced the world to a supremely unworldly magic realist. The acclaim which followed has not dissipated Banhart’s charm. Indeed, the 16 songs which make up Rejoicing… are, if anything, better still. Though his whinnying croon and orbiting strums may sometimes be eerie, Banhart always sounds more enchanted than accursed. In stark contrast to the tormented affectations of most blues-derived songwriters, what’s most striking is his capacity for joy: at the miracle of his birth (“There Was Sun, I Know”) or the surrealism of his visions (“This Beard Is For Siobhan”, in which he memorably takes his teeth out dancing). Banhart’s kinship to the wonder and whimsy of early Bolan is pronounced, and “Poughkeepsie” is a kissing cousin of “Deborah”. There are also nods to the aqueous guitar of John Fahey, Karen Dalton’s theatrical blues and the sweet ruralism of Vashti Bunyan (she shares vocals on the title track). Rejoicing… feels like the work of a man in the midst of a prodigious creative spurt.

If its marvels are so intoxicating you can’t wait until Banhart’s next album, Nino Rojo, arrives in September, then Vetiver’s debut album is worth investigating, too. A San Francisco band fronted by Andy Cabic, Vetiver feature Banhart on guitar and backing vocals, as well as guest visits from Joanna Newsom, Hope Sandoval and MBV’s Colm O’Ciosoig. It isn’t as endearingly odd as Banhart’s solo work, but doesn’t try to be. Rather, it’s an intimate collection of very good chamber folk songs that may be more appealing to those who find Banhart’s quirks, however unforced, a little ostentatious. For the rest of us, these are two wonderful albums informed by an artist who sounds more like a contemporary of his idols than a disciple.