Review Summary: Perhaps everyone's favorite troubadour hasn’t revealed his entire bag of tricks yet.
“Subtlety” is not a word I would typically associate with professional citizen-of-the-world Devendra Banhart. His career has been one of trial and error, always opting for 16 to 22-track records that dive into whatever genre or inside joke Banhart might be most tickled with at the time.
Not that that’s a complaint, mind you. I’ll be the first person to defend an artist’s double album as their most enjoyable work, and Banhart’s troubadour approach functions best when there’s time to settle into his parables. But Banhart is a songwriter who works with specific brush strokes and generally only sticks to a few colors with each picture he paints in listeners’ minds. He has written some incredibly original songs out of the most austere toolbox imaginable, but a lot of the time I get the sense that, though he has certainly developed a childish, fascinating version of folk music, his concepts are so surface-level that they rarely merit intense relistening over the years.
So, what a relief it is that “Mala,” the new release by the 31-year-old Banhart, shows signs that he hasn’t stopped growing as an artist. Of the immediately noticeable change-ups on “Mala” is the almost complete abandonment of Banhart’s trademark sheep yodel. As well, his nylon-string and hand-clapped rhythms have been traded in for airy synthesizers and uncluttered drum machines. Banhart’s arc in recent years has taken him into the realm of the soft ’60s A.M. pop that Ducktails and Ariel Pink have begun to reinterpret, and “Mala” posits Banhart as the most nocturnal and drowsy-eyed of these revivalists.
The production on “Mala” continues the more spacious big-band atmosphere established on 2007’s “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon,” which works magnificently with Banhart’s basic three-chord pop approach. “Mala” scores an early victory with the suite of “Daniel,” “Für Hildegard von Bingen” and “Never Seen Such Good Things,” with each song presenting melodies as simple and enjoyable as anything Banhart has ever written, but through a curtain of reverb and uncharacteristically gentle strumming. The reliance on modest, breathing digital effects creates a decidedly porch-like effect as well; The gurgling keyboards on “Never Seen Such Good Things” falls somewhere between a trembling stream and the nightly chirping of summer frogs, while the late gem, “Won’t You Come Over,” grows ever-more pleasant with each bubbling synth line.
This pleasantry carries throughout the entire record, ultimately making “Mala” one of the most re-playable albums of Banhart’s career. It doesn’t require the mindset Banhart’s music usually demands, which manages to be the album’s greatest strength as well as its biggest downfall. The vibe throughout “Mala” can be modest to a fault, and a majority of the 14 tracks unfortunately blur together, a complaint anyone familiar with Banhart’s work should be familiar with. There are plenty of moments throughout “Mala” that pull the listener back into the music, however, particularly on the late-album boogie, “Hatchet Wound,” and the cosmic whisper of “Won’t You Come Home,” but on “Mala” Banhart doesn’t seem supremely concerned with emotional resonance as much as conveying a humbly romantic collection of sketches.
Yet Banhart’s ability to create interesting music even after losing almost all of the qualities that made his early career so unique is a testament to his abilities as a songwriter and arranger. The folk period of Banhart’s career has slowly made its farewell, but there hasn’t yet been a promising new direction for his music to evolve in until now. For the past few releases, Banhart has been reshaping his songs from loose jams into full-fleshed pop progressions, but with “Mala” he has finally begun to craft choruses that feel fully realized and arrangements that have a genuine sense of purpose. Banhart’s greatest fault to this point has been the narrow corridor for the listener’s interpretation of his music, so it’s refreshing to see that there may still be sides to his personality we haven’t quite discovered yet.
(Originally written for CU Independent, some wording altered. http://www.cuindependent.com/)