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The Soft Revolution

Today's folk songs are being sung--very quietly--by a generation that's had it with sex and drugs and doing it in the road

August 28, 2005|Alec Hanley Bemis | Alec Hanley Bemis writes the "Psychic Hipster's Pop 10" column for the L.A. Weekly, and after finishing this story he took a job with Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve. He also co-owns a record label, Brassland, which documents a community of musicians centered in Brooklyn and New York City.

Devendra Banhart is a case in point. Born in Texas, raised in Caracas, Venezuela, and Malibu's Encinal Canyon, he briefly attended the San Francisco Art Institute before setting out as a self-styled hobo/minstrel, wandering the country until his music career magically took flight. (In fact, Banhart has been fairly calculating in placing himself at the center of the freak-folk movement. Last summer, for example, he curated a compilation album, "The Golden Apples of the Sun," which included many of his fellow folk singers and was released on an imprint of Arthur, a popular underground newspaper based in Los Angeles and distributed nationwide.)

A handsome, skinny, unshaven young man with long black hair and an olive complexion, Banhart could almost pass for Middle Eastern, and his name, which means "king of gods" in Hindi, is not a pseudonym. Rather, it was suggested by Prem Rawat, a controversial spiritual leader his parents followed when he was a boy. They were seekers, albeit ones with a good sense of humor. Banhart claims his middle name is Obi, and that it comes from the Jedi master played by Alec Guinness in the original "Star Wars" films.

Some have suggested that this version of his life story finds him indulging in Dylanesque self-mythologizing, but his respect for the core beliefs of his parents is incontrovertible. "If there's anyone we relate to, it's our moms and dads," he says. "It's older hippies, people into Eastern philosophies and New Age, in the sense that if you look at the seed of every religion, it's all the same, so let's start our own vague one based on love and peace and unity and going within."

In recent photographs, Banhart has appeared with a black bindi on his forehead, a mark typically worn by Hindu women, but if one were to divine his faith from listening to his lyrics, it would resemble an animistic fantasy land filled with "dancing crabs," "yellow spiders," "sexy pigs" and "happy squids." The way his music sounds--acoustic and hypnotic, warm and approachable--is a far better indicator of his spirituality. In "This Is the Way," he sings: "This is the sound that swims inside me / That circle sound is what surrounds me / This is the land that grows around me." Indeed, it sounds as if he's strumming circles in the air, as if playing itself were a devotional act. And in a sense it is, insofar as he believes deeply in music's ability to act as a balm to the soul, to better the world of which it is an integral part.

One of Banhart's favorite things to do during interviews is to name-drop long and baffling lists of his friends' musical projects. In one such eruption he cites Six Organs of Admittance, Vetiver, White Rainbow, Little Wings, Yacht and Yume Bitsu in quick succession. His intentions, though, seem far from mercenary. "Their records are good for me," he explains quite tenderly, "and I'm just personally going to be honest, they're good for you too. I can say that they are, I'm sure they are. I'm sure they are."

The singer-songwriters of the Soft Revolution are part of the first generation to come of age in a world where nothing was forbidden. They are the anti-Victorians. For these kids--and in this day and age, even 30-year-olds can be referred to as kids--the bras have already been burned, rock 'n' roll is the soundtrack to a car commercial and the '60s are no longer thought of as a revolution in consciousness. Rather, the '60s are something from a history text or an ad in Rolling Stone, and rebellion is a canned message you can get your fill of by watching five minutes of MTV. Many members of this generation have had it with sex and drugs and doing it in the road. They are looking for something deeper.

If there's one artist who most embodies this line of thinking, it's Sufjan Stevens, whom Banhart conspicuously fails to include in his freak-folk canon. (The omission may be accidental, but even Iron & Wine made it onto Banhart's "Golden Apples" compilation, despite the fact that he and Sam Beam had never met.) Stevens is probably Banhart's only real competition as quiet music's leading light. Yet his very earnest Christian faith sets him apart from the others, just as surely as Hegarty's sexuality does. And just as Hegarty's music engages his most private sexual thoughts, Stevens' thoroughly indulges his spiritual preoccupations. His music publishing company is called New Jerusalem Music. His album "Seven Swans" includes songs titled "The Transfiguration" and "Abraham." And on tours for that album, he and his backing band wore white clothing with tiny, feathery winglets mounted to each shoulder blade.

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