Release Date: Mar 12, 2013
Record label: Nonesuch
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Everyone shouts nowadays, turning things up to 11 and generally overcompensating; it can drive you mad. So when a record like Mala arrives, so slight and quiet it feels out of time, it feels almost revolutionary. Nine albums in, Banhart’s style is true to form, with his Bolan warble and muddied production still present, but now the absence of clarity is his strongest selling-point.
"Get on the dance floor" is not a phrase one associates with Devendra Banhart, but there he is, vaguely demanding it at the start of his seventh album. There's no danger of the king of folkie beardos making a Harlem Shake video. But vintage drum-machine tup-tup and the occasional synth splash color on this return to form, Banhart's first album since 2009 and his strongest set of songs since the earlier, freakier material.
Sonically, Mala is molded with a certain kinship to 2009’s What Will We Be—Banhart’s first and only release on Warner Bros.’ eponymous flagship. But in this case, its predecessor’s malady of stylistic disparity has been curbed to the point of what feels like a cohesive body of work. Don’t get me wrong, the album is not without its trademark eccentricities: refer to “Mi Negrita” or “Your Fine Petting Duck” for multi-lingual folk whimsy in Spanish and German, respectively.
Such is his influence on psych and freak-folk in the last decade, Devendra Banhart no longer sounds particularly freaky – it's perfectly normal to record on vintage hip-hop equipment, combine flamenco guitar with frowsy 80s synths or write odes to the medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen nowadays, as he does here (Damon Albarn is also a fan of the saint). Swapping in and out of various tongues is his party trick, as on Your Fine Petting Duck where he and Serbian fiancee Ana Kraš duet in English and German, as deadpan as shop mannequins and as flat as Nico. His taste for bathos and anachronism ensures that even the tiniest songs have their character: the jazz waltz Golden Girls recalls queuing to see Suede; Won't You Come Over is a string of increasingly clunky lyrics crammed into that tune that goes "Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird".
Since his 2002 debut LP, Oh Me Oh My..., a glorious tangle of lo-fi tape hiss and acoustic vignettes, Devendra Banhart has traversed myriad stylistic avenues. Be it the scarred folk balladry of his watershed 2004 albums Rejoicing in the Hands and Nino Rojo, to his comparatively baroque 2005 release Cripple Crow, and his often overreaching late '00s albums Smoke Rolls Down Thunder Canyon and What Will We Be, his ambitions have always been crashing, irrespective of artistic triumph. Mala, Banhart's seventh LP and first in three and a half years, is yet another stylistic curveball, favoring low-key arrangements with subtle flourishes of Tropicalia, and disco even.
Insofar as anything about Devendra Banhart was ever considered "underrated," the man rarely got enough credit for his sense of humor. He was often called "playful" or "mischievous," or some other lightly stepping compliment that aligned more comfortably with the image of him as the kind and gentle Cosmically Transcendent Avatar of Freak-Folk. But check his track record: "This Beard Is For Siobhan", "Chinese Children", "The Beatles", Megapuss, and, oy vey, "Shabop Shalom"-- dude's got jokes.
Devendra BanhartMala[Nonesuch; 2013]By Ray Finlayson; March 19, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetDevendra Banhart is a bit of an odd fellow, and travelling through his discography, or just reading an interview with him, makes this perfectly clear. But this quality is good when you’re someone who still puts all their faith in the L-word as it adds a refreshing spin to a subject that’s been battered, bruised, and ripped apart until it's lost almost any meaning it might have had to begin with. Sure, Banhart has birthed some egregious duds in his time, but his wry sense of humour combined with his fascination with falling in and out of relationships can (at the best of times) weave wonderful tales both of how great it can be and how it can all go so wrong.
Devendra Banhart has never been one to let anachronism, impossibility, nor absurdity interfere with his creative output. Whether crooning on 2005’s Crippled Crow about his desire to father “Chinese Children” on every continent, or “Shabob Shalom”‘s 1950’s sock-hop love letter to a Jewish cutie off 2007’s Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, the Venezuelan American songwriter has managed to keep his sound unique without coming across as trying too hard. Eccentric instrumentation, recurring thoughts, and otherworldly concepts just seem to find their way into his special brand of off-kilter, folksy freak-flamenco.
Over the past decade, the original inhabitants of the freak-folk forest have mostly broken free of those tired genre confines: Animal Collective venturing into left-field electro-psych, Grizzly Bear blooming into a legitimate art-rock band, Joanna Newsom shacking up with the guy who wrote “Dick in a Box.” Devendra Banhart is the exception. For better or worse, the Venezuelan-American singer-songwriter has remained pegged to that particular era and musical movement, even as his songs have been honed and sharpened—best evidenced on 2009’s gracefully sleepy What Will We Be. Part of the freak-folk ideal was sloppiness—making music without logical sonic confines, with little regard for cohesiveness.
Devendra Banhart has been around for a while now, but he's still one of the most enigmatic and interesting musicians operating in the industry today with a beautifully bizarre charm. Mala represents his 8th album offering and proceedings initiate briefly and calmly with Golden Girls, which employs a bassline highly reminiscent of the XX’s signature nocturnal sound, whilst Banhart steadily ups the urgency with his hypnotic words until he finally intones the listener to make that final jump and “get on the dancefloor”. The music fades out at this point, however, and anyone who took this advice a bit too literally will be left wanting.
At a certain point, the path got stranger for Devendra Banhart. Appearing out of nowhere in the early 2000s with a string of almost accidentally perfect albums, Banhart's haunted voice and familiar impressions of the ghosts of folksingers past pushed him to the forefront of what would be dubbed freak folk. Along with Joanna Newsom and the then-acoustic trip-outs of Animal Collective, Little Wings, Jana Hunter, and a host of other weirdos, Banhart produced effortlessly sublime songs, connected to a sense of earthy wonder and romanticism.
A decade ago, Devendra Banhart emerged as the de facto torchbearer for the then-burgeoning freak-folk movement. Bohemian communalism, world-spanning musical styles, multilingual lyrics, big bushy beards, robes and boots, borrowed houses, found sounds, and the healing power of crystals all featured into Banhart’s aesthetic then, and on his eight studio album – and first for Nonesuch – those elements are still present, but considerably subdued under a layer of polished vintage synthesizers and thumping bass. This time out Banhart and his longtime bandmate, guitarist Noah Georgeson, recorded the album and played most of the instruments themselves at Banhart’s home in Los Angeles on an old thrift-shop Tascam recorder.
Listeners who fell in love with Devendra Banhart’s quavering vocals, spare finger-picking, and offbeat lyrics on 2004’s Rejoicing in the Hands were in for a surprise when the singer-songwriter began to swerve away from no-frills folk and into less predictable, far headier territory on subsequent releases. Banhart’s early work, DIY four-track recordings made while the singer was attending art school and busking on street corners, was revelatory lo-fi: The guitar lines occasionally dropped a note, Banhart’s voice trembled hesitantly, the lyrics addressed such subjects as little sparrows and beards. Those early songs contained enough tentative delicacy to satisfy fans of Iron & Wine and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, yet Banhart’s adventurous song structures and occasionally baffling titles (“Tit Smoking in the Temple of Artisan Mimicry”) suggested that some quotient of freakiness laid in wait.
If there's one thing we've learned from Devendra Banhart's decade-long career, it's that he follows his instincts. Whether it's making albums that lead critics to declare him the bearded Pied Piper of "freak folk" or covering Leonard Cohen songs with Beck, the Venezuelan-American singer/songwriter has a discography that's all his own. Banhart's eighth album and first since 2009's What Will We Be is a playful love letter to his Serbian fiancée.
Once the most exuberantly irritating of alt.folk’s raggle-taggle crew, high beard of weird Devendra Banhart has in recent years retreated inward and found a rich heart of darkness. With the overt wackiness refined, his music these days is both eerie and subtle. This album goes back to basics after the wide-ranging full-band effort that was 2009’s ‘Who Will We Be’, and was recorded at Banhart’s home with longtime guitarist Noah Georgeson.
There was so much Devendra Banhart to digest when he first came to our attention over a decade ago, that the three years since his last LP seem like an age. Not only did he shower us with a plethora of records, but he seemed to turn up with all sorts of other acts as well - bringing the likes of Vetiver to our attention - and touring forever. In contrast, since 2009’s What Will Be Will Be, Banhart has been conspicuously quiet, concentrating on his visual art and moving across America to take up residence in New York.
Devendra Banhart wants it both ways with his eighth album, Mala. On one hand, he’s now on Nonesuch Records, which is owned by Warner Music Group, after a stint with the parent company on 2009’s What Will We Be. So there’s the expectation of trying to reach out to a wider audience and, one would assume, have the pressure from label executives to deliver a record that sells well and maybe, just maybe, have a hit single.
A sense of love and lightness lingers after this eighth album has run its course. Laura Barton 2013 It is more than a decade since Devendra Banhart released his debut album, the intriguing The Charles C. Leary, and in that time the world that found itself so startled and so beguiled by his New Weird Freak Folk (or however they cared to classify it) has changed considerably.
The more Devendra Banhart makes music, the more he loosens his grip on it. That’s a good thing. When he emerged a decade ago as a leader of the freak-folk movement, he seemed destined to be a casualty of that scene. But in recent years he has blossomed into a panoramic songwriter more prone to take chances.
Furnished with the kind of ethereal, intangible brilliance which only ever seems to reveal itself in small bursts, Devendra Banhart stands as one of few truly unpredictable, unique talents working today. The Venezuelan-American is possessed of a sometimes quizzical, sometimes whimsical, sometimes poignant lyrical mind, and on Mala, his first LP release since 2009, there’s vocal talent spread across multiple styles and three languages. Despite its sprawl, Mala is, if nothing else, singular.