Devendra Banhart has made a career out of being a whimsical dabbler. The half-Venezuelan songwriter has never ceased to make critics keen on pigeonholing him into any particular genre eat their words, often tearing into the sounds which composed the foundations of his earlier triumphs in favor of adding a smattering of different styles to his musical palette, from samba to psych-rock to soul. Banhart, a self-described “professional amateur,” is the definition of a moving target.
One of the most persistent labels that has followed Banhart around has been that of a “freak-folk” artist, a tag which was fully crystallized after the release of the eccentric and intimate ‘Cripple Crow’ in 2005. Since then, though, that label hasn’t really applied. 2007’s ‘Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon’ saw him electrify his sound to unprecedented levels - tracks like ‘Seahorse’ and pop-smash ‘Lover’ felt novel at the time, and when combined with the flavorful Spanish-language numbers ‘Carmensita’ and ‘Cristobal’, yielded what was Banhart’s first real rock album.
Eventually, once the transition from hippie to hipster was fully complete - shoulder-length hair cut, cross-dressing Indian bindi-wearing phase over, and bushy beard and Zappa-stache ousted in favor of well-manicured stubble - Devendra went on to make waves with 2011’s ‘Mala’.
Tracks like ‘Your Fine Petting Duck’ showcase his taste for the avant-garde and see him experimenting with synths and singing in German. Other cuts like ‘Daniel’ display his longtime penchant for storytelling, while the instrumental sketch ‘The Ballad Of Keenan Milton’ and the title-track come off as beautiful poem-like reveries. At the time it was Banhart’s most thematically-aligned work, and certainly the biggest outlier in his well-varied catalogue.
‘Ape In Pink Marble’ marks Banhart’s ninth full-length effort, and with the exception of a handful of singles, the first material he has released since ‘Mala’.
Album opener and first single ‘Middle Names’ is Devendra at his simple best, with only light synth flourishes and intermingling acoustic guitars made to complement haunting, warbling vocals. The “la-la-la's” on ‘Good Time Charlie’ show off one of Banhart’s quintessential quirks, and ‘Jon Lends A Hand’ features the creative use of claps and a rhythm guitar as the track’s percussive heartbeats. The ethereal ‘Saturday Night’ is undoubtedly one of the album’s standouts, and boasts some of Devendra’s most thoughtful and deep-cutting songwriting to date.
Those less keen on Banhart’s more playful offerings might cite ‘Fancy Man’ as where ‘Ape’ begins to wander, but nonsensical lyrics have always been a pillar of Banhart’s work - think ‘Chinese Children’. So even if out-of-place quips about zoos in Thailand aren’t your forte, this is precisely the kind of track long-time Devendra fans will appreciate dearly. The same can be said about ‘Fig In Leather’, which is marked by an over-the-top synth-lead reminiscent of the one which adorns the infamous Rod Stewart banger ‘If You Want My Body’. Talk-lyrics “come right in/have a seat/ remove your shoes/enjoy some fruit” land cleanly and are perhaps the record’s best examples of Banhart’s humor, with the opening line on ‘Souvenirs’ - “welcome to the hotel... in California” coming a close second.
Besides its eye-catching title, ‘Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green’ feels noteworthy for its melodic and understated take on beach-baked bossa nova, an ode of sorts to one of Devendra’s chief musical influences: legendary Brazilian Caetano Veloso. But perhaps the most novel cut on ‘Ape in Pink Marble’ is the synth-driven dream-pop track ‘Mourner’s Dance’. Ending on the unsettling refrain “we remember you,” it plays as some of Banhart’s darkest material, but pales in comparison to ‘Linda’, which wouldn’t sound out of place on the soul-crushing Cat Power LP ‘Moon Pix’.
In many ways, ‘Celebration’ feels like a fitting end to an album which sounds not all too different from its predecessor. Maybe it’s because he’s tired of constantly reinventing himself, but more likely it’s that the enigmatic Banhart is currently making the kind of music he actually enjoys making.
For an artist that has chewed on so many different flavors - some more pleasing than others - it’s far from a crime to savour the taste of something especially sweet. ‘Ape in Pink Marble’ doesn’t do anything innovative because it doesn’t really have to. So go ahead, Devendra, celebrate.
Words: Noveen Bajpai
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