I’ve warmed up to Devendra Banhart’s new album, Mala. The folkie freak, who hates when he’s referred to as anything resembling a hippie, cruises lazy Tiki bar rhythms and tequila sunrise musings on his latest disc. Soft marimbas and strumming acoustics lap against the shore of his island life fantasy, which isn’t so far removed from Jimmy Buffett gone full-blown psychedelic.
It’s cool, easy music, like Bobby Bloom’s “Montego Bay,” but without the snappy, whistling tropical edge that song delivers. Mala forces the listener to sip, slowly and methodically, like you would a tall zombie cocktail during an overpriced grass hut rental vacation, its curious tone of surf-side intimacy. One may want more from a new Devendra Banhart album and the temptation is there to suck the alcohol out of every mouthful.
But it comes in doses. And like the effects of that killer cocktail, Mala creeps up on the listener unexpectedly with thoughtful, albeit tipsy drunken psychological adventures in sexland. Under a seaside moon, Banhart makes longing eye-to-eye contact with the natives in the cocktail drenched “Mi Negrita,” that sounds remarkably like Jonathan Richman’s excursions into Spanish eyes territory on his Her Mystery Not Of High Heels And Eye Shadow album.
“Your Fine Petting Duck” (smirk if you will) is an orgasmic night of lovemaking with an island girl call-and-response vocal that is as laid-back and rum influenced as a Kid Coconut record. It lifts like a rising wave (or a very happy petting duck) into a pulsating tropical electronica vibe.
The instrumental tribute to the celebrated and departed skateboarder Keenan Milton, “The Ballad of Keenan Milton,” seems an homage to The Clash’s southern hemisphere and their brilliant Sandanista! album. Its soft and sad plucking of an acoustic guitar above the barely audible sound of a siren wailing in the foggy distance is as entrancing as Sandanista’s quietest and most powerful moments.
Elsewhere, Banhart’s last night on Earth is more pop oriented than his freak folk image would suggest. His signature weird vocal warble, like gargling with stones, is heard only once on Mala, on “Won’t You Come Over.” It’s a catchy melody with a Caribbean easy beat that vaguely recalls Jimmie Davis’ blues-country classic “Come On Over To My House.”
So I’m a bit hooked to Mala. It has all the strangeness of an exotic fruit and all the familiarity of a great pop songbook. The more I listen to it, the more I am aware of its several influences. Did I mention Elliott Smith? Possibly Mala is Banhart’s attempt to bury his freaky folk dude persona once and for all, and celebrate other musical influences besides Donovan Leitch.
He has only himself to blame for the freaky dude label, which he has publicly detested. One story finds him showing up at a Halloween party wearing nothing but a skirt. He claims he didn’t know it was a Halloween party.
Photo credit of Devendra Banhart: Pitchfork.com