March 13, 2013

Test Spins: Devendra Banhart, Mala

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Even while clawing and gnashing at his coffin, zombie Charles Darwin would no doubt take pleasure in listening to the intimate mellowness of Mala’s nigh-evolutionary maturity. No longer channeling Russell Brand with his Tarzan-esque, shoulder-length mange shorn in favor of short, lacquer swooshes of moussed hair resembling a somewhat-less-than-amused mallard, bearded Venezuelan polyglot and daring folk technologist Devendra Banhart’s locks suggest only vague memories of a past wilderness tucked away beneath the sharp features of an enigmatic, boyish romantic. The keening yelps and crackling chirrups characteristic of earlier albums Oh Me Oh My and Cripple Crow peek through Mala in moments of sincerity, perforating the otherwise subdued tonality of Banhart’s third studio album and assuring listeners that the minstrel’s haphazardly experimental “do-it-yourself” mentality wasn’t snipped into oblivion along with most of his mop. Rather than sacrificing lyrical trenchancy for a seductively smooth blend of baritone earthiness and ghostly falsetto choirs of Devendra clones, Mala proves itself a step forward for Banhart as a subtly articulate melding of sounds both old and new.The opening track, “Golden Girls,” hits with sleepy electric chords like Nyquil and a comfy aural pillow before concluding with slight discordant twinges, suggestive of caged imagination and insanity, like Don Quixote on an acid trip. “Daniel,” the following track, paints a decisively blue aesthetic with Banhart’s quaveringly sensitive lilts adding a poignant brush stroke to lamentations of loneliness: “Love’s got a way of fading away / I never saw you again.” Tinny pangs of strident synths gasp intermittently with the percussion of “Für Hildegard von Bingen,” the chronicle of a medieval feminist whose discovery of an anachronistic VHS tape leads her to escape her abbey to become an MTV VJ (lest anyone claim Devendra Banhart isn’t creative).

“The Ballad of Keenan Milton,” as a midway interlude of sorts, features the atmospheric sounds of a city street – atonal footsteps echo and sirens blare along with the soothing melancholy of Banhart’s pockmarked acoustic guitar, which sounds with new clarity as it takes on dreamlike layers both passive and direct. Whispering, wiry strings break the illusion as the track transitions to “On Air,” with Banhart choking up on the microphone as if sighing out a personal secret. Interspersed with tracks like “Mi Negrita” and “Mala,” the album spans three languages (Spanish, English and German) that add a dimension of sensitivity with a similar intimacy to that of “On Air.” The penultimate track, “Won’t You Come Home,” is decidedly more remorseful, like calling in vain after a departed friend. Singing electric guitar riffs deepen a sense of sonic gravity that slowly dissipates into a surreal lightness like floating after a bong hit, and the sense of distance is never more real.

The trimmed-back maturity of Mala’s smoother, borderline bedroom pop sound is not entirely a departure from the clangor and Bob Dylan-inspired warbling of Devendra Banhart’s earlier days; stylistically, his writing has taken on greater variety at the cost of a few clumsy missteps in experimentation. Even so, the artist has found a new avenue for progression and shows unforeseen promise even a decade after his 2002 debut.

Original Author: Matt Hudson

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