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Devendra Banhart


Club Mercy presents DEVENDRA BANHART!

May 12, 2013

$25 tickets on-sale now!

doors at 7pm / showtime 8pm


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. If you still don't get the picture, witness the title of his latest album Mala. It's

a term of endearment that loosely translates to "sweetie pie" in the

native tongue of his fiancée, Serbian artist Ana Kraš. But as a guy who

frequently sings in Spanish, Banhart must be very aware of how most

people will initially read it-- especially

in light of the artistic freefall he's been in for the past six or so

years. If he's baiting us with a pun, it's a great relief to find out

he's earned the right to fuck around, as Mala is Banhart's best record in nearly a decade-- largely because it's his loosest and funniest.


not exactly a trend within itself, it's interesting to see how

Banhart's latest follows a similar route to recent solo albums from Christopher Owens and Jim James,

longhairs who had similarly been burdened with messianic praise and

rock savior archetypes. Like those men, Banhart has eased back on

multiple levels after increasingly ambitious records, digging up

pre-Beatles concepts of pop and rock while writing from non-punk states

such as loving with levity and aging with grace. Mala's no less diverse than Cripple Crow or Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon,

but it's exponentially less heavy-handed in its genre-hopping. As the

lovely instrumental "The Ballad of Keenan Milton" attests, he hasn't

completely foresworn solo acoustic performance, but otherwise, these

songs are short and spare, little more than reverbed electric guitar

accompanied by light drumming and rudimentary synth tones. It

retroactively posits him as something of a missing link between Ariel Pink and Owens, which is an accomplishment within itself.


importantly, these are by far Banhart's most plainspoken and legible

songs. Considering they're in the form of soft-shoe jazz or playful

R&B, there isn't urgency per se, so much as immediacy resulting from how Mala often

feels like snippets taken from Banhart's daily life. "Daniel"

namechecks bars and street names as well as "waiting in line to see

Suede play," while the record's cloaking, murky production gives the

impression that he stills lives on a more mysterious plane than most of

us. It also gives Banhart the freedom to get a little goofy even when Mala sounds dead sober. The muffled disco strut of "Für Hildegard Von Bingen" reimagines the 12th-century

mystic as "a VJ on location" and leaves it as just a passing fancy

Banhart felt worthy of capture rather than some high-minded metaphor.

Likewise, "A Gain" is more of an interlude than a song, about a minute

of free-form violin and Banhart muttering lines about being a

disappointment to his mother, hair gel, and the W Hotel. As he rushes to

jam in every last word in the line "love is gonna be a long lost

biological father," he's laughing at his own emo capacity as well as the

nakedly "confessional" format.

For the most part, Mala makes

good on its titular inspiration by way of including plenty of silly

songs about love. Which is different than "silly love songs" in a

crucial way-- Banhart's light touch with the more embarrassing aspects

of relationships cuts against the occasional whimsy, and his

self-deprecation feels earned, humanizing him as someone who can be a

jerk in mundane ways: a guy who dated starlets but probably got yelled

at for leaving the toilet seat up. Banhart takes on a deeper register

that's equally suave and fatuous on "Never Seen Such Good Things", a

song that borders on rhinestone cowboy pop. He laments a lost love with

momentary nobility before the gawky phonetics and crude sentiment of "if

we ever make sweet love again/ I'm sure it would be quite disgusting"

make it a multilayered joke at the expense of our faulty memories

regarding exes. This is even more pronounced on "Your Fine Petting

Duck", a duet where Banhart and Kras play ex-lovers on opposite ends of a

proposed reconciliation; Kras wants him back, Banhart is quick to

remind her of the numerous ways in which he was a total ass: "If he ever

is untrue/ Just remember I was too... and so much more so." For

whatever reason, it switches midway to a lo-fi electro-pop thump while

Banhart and Kras sing in German, because... why not? Even if it's

fiction and decidedly anti-romantic in content, the feel is that of an

inside joke between two people who really like each other; in practice,

it's an ironic Valentine that's a powerfully effective demonstration of

the conspiratorial giddiness of new love.

So it's best to think of Mala as a new beginning for Banhart than a triumphant return to form-- for one thing, this is not the

sort of record that will bring back the diehards who felt he fell off

the moment he traded in his four-track, to say nothing of cleaning up

his image and reneging on the promise of "Long Haired Child". And he

still isn't the most fastidious editor of his own work; on the whole,

it's for the best that his mojo and humor are given equal billing on Mala,

though he should've kept the Zappa pastiche "Hatchet Wound" to himself.

But one overly bawdy locker room joke is a small price to pay as

Banhart sounds refreshed and relieved here, someone happily on the

outside looking in rather than trying to situate himself as a

countercultural star, and finally taking the opportunity to show that he

doesn't take himself as seriously as a lot of people take him.

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