There will be some diehard Devendra fans out there who won’t much care for this observation, but the opening track Middle Names on his new album sounds a lot like the band America, apart from the intentionally lo-fi and slightly dissonant sounds. I know this precisely having just listened for two/three days of car driving spells to a huge compilation of America songs I have made [and, by the way, what fine sustained songwriting – though a selection] and this is so similar.
But really it shouldn’t be a surprise. Banhart’s earliest work had such obvious echoes from the past – ‘’hippie’ folk music largely – and so this is going to continue though he has moved away from this more recently, as with Mala. Indeed, second Good Time Charlie does have a little of Donovan in there….
OK, I’ll stop. There is, in fact, a return it seems to me to the more naïve sound of his early work, again evident in the raw production, though this is ironically quite carefully intended. But there is a simplicity in the tunes, and the musical backdrops are kept bright and cheerful rather than complex. It is playful too, as with the rough reggae pulses of fourth Mara.
But for really playful there is Fancy Man, which is quite silly. This is followed by Fig in Leather, a disco/reggae tour de force, or tour through affectionate cliché. You know, tracks I didn’t select for my America compilation were the many reggae pastiches, but I believe these were considered serious musical appropriations; Devendra is enjoying the tease here and elsewhere.
I know my geography is going to sound awry in this next comment, but there is a gentle South American [Venezuelan presumably] feel to seventh Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green, and the sweeping strings are redolent of the sixties in that Latin orchestral way common then. But this gentleness is appealing, and it continues in the pop sparkles and further discordant guitar strums with electronic dribbles here and there in eighth Souvenirs.
The final third of the album is really quite sweet, and the electronic soundscapes are again simply done but the depth of sound is expansive as backdrop to dainty melodies. Mourner’s Dance introduces oriental sounds, and Banhart’s vocal is layered prettily; Saturday Night foregrounds a fragile vocal fully in keeping with the directness of the songwriting, percussive pulses supporting the layered singing again, those familiar Devendra warbles in there too; Linda is acoustic guitar pacing a female persona’s latenight lament – this is beautifully plaintive, especially in the super-slowed ending; Lucky is more guitar work at a walking pace and injections of guitar struts and plucks and sweetslow licks, a chorus of another reason I am lucky as happy as it sounds, and the closer Celebration is precisely that of the album’s sustained simplicity that has grown to this gem: affecting guitar chords backed by the vibrato of other sounds, moving in and out of tune, the harmonised celebration trumpeted by the synth horns.