Let's get one thing out of the way right off the bat: If you're looking for dinner music or something to leave playing in the background while you're paying bills or figuring your taxes, stay the hell away from Devendra Banhart. Plenty of records are focus-optional -- you can choose to engage with them, or not, at will -- but Oh Me Oh My, whatever cringes its title might rightly inspire, is an all-or-nothing proposition. It requires your attention; its rewards are considerable.
A lot of records sounded more or less like Oh Me Oh My back in the late '80s: audio verité experiments with plenty of tape hiss and "mistakes" intentionally left in. Some were good, some weren't; there were too many of them for a brief time, and then, for the most part, they were gone. So the "raw" quality of Oh Me Oh My is really nothing special. But the songs! And the way they're sung and played! How unlike almost anything else they are! The only points of comparison that come to mind are almost unforgivably obscure: Unbunny, Paste, John (Folk Implosion) Davis. Half Japanese, maybe. Oh yes, and Swans.
Swans is the storied band once fronted by Michael Gira, who happens to be the brains behind Young God Records, the label that's releasing Oh Me Oh My. Though Banhart is sonically nothing like Swans (or Gira's current concern, the Angels of Light), his melodies share Gira's intense, almost morbid fascination with the allure of the repetitious, and they reach for comparably dark places in the heart. Small four- or five-note figures run through their steps while Banhart keens slight variations of a lyric over them in his high, disconcerting voice until the tension becomes nearly unbearable. One keeps waiting for something to happen. What does wind up happening is entirely internal; the listener feels uncomfortable, oppressed, entranced and eventually evangelized. It takes patience and care to locate the place where one needs to be to hear Banhart's gifts. An art this far outside the mainstream won't be stuffing many stockings this season. The lucky few who have ears for something whose beauty is at once frightening and troubling, though, are in for a rare treat.