By Sarah Bennett
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It may say something about the manic online nature of music these days, but there's something perversely interesting—maybe even inspiring—about a musician who isn't really on the web all that much. It's not that Devendra Banhart isn't on it at all—his official web page continues chugging along, hosted by his label Warner Bros.—but he posted all of six or so news items last year and only one this year, and it was about the separate tour of a recent collaborator. There's no formal Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr presence—leading some of the people who maintain fan accounts to plead with others to stop asking if they knew him at all. Even a notable recluse such as Jandek has had a higher public profile of late.
So the fact Banhart has fully re-emerged for the first time in a couple of years—following an abbreviated tour for his previous album, What Will We Be, cut short thanks to a skateboarding accident—is of due interest. Last month saw his first new piece of music in a year, one of numerous versions of "I Only Have Eyes for You" recorded for Doug Aitken's Song 1 project, while he'll be prefacing an opening slot for Beck in Santa Barbara with a stand-alone performance at the Observatory. There's no formal word of more or any new album, so it's anyone's guess exactly what will be the focus of the show, whether it'll be just him or with backing musicians . . . or something else.
That air of relative mysteriousness, though, no doubt suits Banhart, if only because he has made his name through a combination of genteel friendliness and seeming to not entirely be from the regular day-to-day world. (When he was involved in a short relationship with Natalie Portman that included a video, the sheer incongruity of the idea was people's most immediate reaction.) First coming to wider attention a decade ago thanks to the encouragement of early fan Michael Gira of Swans, Banhart was associated with a slew of musicians given the tag "freak folk," with Joanna Newsom as the other lodestone of wayward, unsettled impulses that eschewed roots-music formalism for off-kilter ideas.
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As with any genre tag, the concept was limiting and not very descriptive; if anyone was an obvious role model, it was Marc Bolan in his Tyrannosaurus Rex mode, with Banhart's trilling voice and acoustic arrangements clearly recalling the Bopping Elf's pre-glam breakout. But over time, in combination with such efforts as his early participation in Vetiver, Banhart's style became a freewheeling dip into whatever caught his fancy. A classic example can be heard on What Will We Be, with the winsome "Chin Chin and Muck Muck" featuring an arrangement that shows his long-standing interest in classic Brazilian psych and pop. And the slick stomper "16th and Valencia, Roxy Music" openly nods to the classic U.K. band in its title—but doesn't stop there.
If anything, Banhart seems to have settled into the enviable position of dictating his career according to his desires more than any evident corporate concerns—there's a pretty clear through-line in all his work—and doing so without ever having produced a massive hit in favor of such lovely songs old and new (such as "Autumn's Child" and "Walilamdzi"). It'll be fun seeing what he chooses to do Wednesday night—and especially whether he breaks out his trademark warbling.
This article appeared in print as "Banhart Is Back: The mysterious reappearing act of Devendra Banhart."