A bearded and bedraggled folkie who plays simple songs for voice and guitar, Devendra Banhart has made a game of confounding notions of time and place. He came up in hip rock clubs, but he looks better suited for a hut in the South American countryside. He evokes a folk tradition that telescopes back to Bob Dylan, but he's more indebted to the opera-glass likes of Nick Drake, the wispy '60s legend whose folk music was less earthy and communal than ethereal and alone. Most important, Banhart serves as the stand-in leader of an underground folk movement that sounds both anachronistic and, in a way he makes seem natural, strangely in tune with the times.
Now 23, Banhart has bounced around: He spent formative years in Texas, Venezuela, California and New York before finding a figurative home on the road, where he has played a string of tambourine-strewn shows to a swelling throng of followers. Fans give him flowers and sway along to strange songs that beg to be internalized. Banhart himself commands it all from a modest perch, sitting Indian-style or rising up to clap a beat, like a ghost from folk music's future.
With his 2002 debut, "Oh Me Oh My . . .," Banhart made a murky show of his peculiar song-sense. Draped in hiss and static from barely working tape machines, the album sounded like a relic upon conception -- a fever dream weathered by a throwback hippie channeling old blues artists with "Mississippi" and "Blind" in their names. Banhart cleaned up considerably on "Rejoicing in the Hands," a terrific follow-up that found him working suggestions of songs into grander gestures.
On "Nino Rojo," a new album recorded at the same time and billed as a companion to "Rejoicing," Banhart closes the loop with stirring folk mantras that sound more approachable but no less weird. At its core, Banhart's music rises and falls with his unusual voice, a bewitching cackle that threads dainty frills into a raw blues warble. In "Wake Up, Little Sparrow," he puts that voice to full use: Over a haunting acoustic-guitar figure, his hyper-enunciated vowels sound surprised, startled, stretched out until they warp like comics imprinted on Silly Putty. It's an odd effect, but Banhart matches its preciousness to playfulness in tracks such as "Little Yellow Spider," a jaunty would-be children's song that finds him chewing through lines like "Hey there Mr. Happy Squid, you move so psychedelically / You hypnotize with your magic dance all the animals in the sea."
Ever the folkie, Banhart plays off both Pete Seeger and more elaborate British folk acts like Fairport Convention. His guitar playing has grown increasingly dexterous and delicate, winding finger-picked paths through occasional spreads of strings, piano and horns. In "Water May Walk," he whispers a buoyant melody over tinkling wind chimes and bird chirps. It's a small song that breathes deeply, sounding rootsy and slightly surreal -- a ceremonial rite that Banhart has made an impressive ritual.