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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. It’s also his best album in nearly a decade.
Mala‘s production is crisp and clean, and borderline ascetic when contrasted with Banhart’s three previous albums. Co-produced by Noah Georgeson, who also plays guitar in Banhart’s band, the songs exude a certain cloistered feel, akin to Beck’s Sea Change or The Velvet Underground’s second LP.
Opening track “Golden Girls” is almost dirge-like, with a downtrodden melody that’s belied by Banhart’s exhortation to “get on the dance floor.” “Daniel” is like a sepia-tinged photograph, another slow motion ballad that finds Banhart lamenting with pathos, “I swore I’d never let you go/But love has a way of fading away/I never saw you again.”
Brazilian guitars accent “Never Seen Such Good Things,” an elegiac number that ruminates on the persistence of love (“Love you’re a strange fella/You leave your mark indelibly”), before the sentimentality is blasted to oblivion by Banhart’s hilarious pronouncement of, “If we ever make sweet love again/I’m sure it will be quite disgusting.”
The gentle electro syncopations of “Won’t You Come Over,” and the woozy jazz bebop number “Taurobolium” both hint at just how versatile and gifted Banhart is, perhaps worthy of Swans leader Michael Gira’s assertion long ago that he was in the same league as Beck. But it’s a disservice to compare Banhart to anyone. He’s a singularly idiosyncratic and brilliant songwriter, one hitting an arresting stride on this uniformly superb album. –Under The Radar