Devendra Banhart – Ape in Pink Marble

Banhart's ninth record, his first in three years, is a study in restraint – there's an overriding mellowness, minimalism, and often melancholy that holds the album together. In fact, in many ways, this could be considered as his most cohesive record to date, although people who are hoping “most cohesive” means twelve new equivalents to 'I Feel Just Like A Child' might be disappointed. Production-wise the album harks back to his early lo-fi work, much of the instrumentation saturated in the warming warble of what sounds like tape-phase and, apart from on a couple of key tracks, songs have been gently adorned – there are few tracks with a full drumbeat-based backing track, for example. The sounds that fill the record, though, resemble old-fashioned Casio synth sounds, which break-up and decay in satisfying analogue ways – it’s lush, loungey and exotic.

Devendra Banhart was born in Houston, Texas, before moving to his mother’s native Venezuela aged two, where he was raised before returning to the United States, this time to California, as a teenager. His background moving through those cultures clearly influenced his future direction in becoming the atypical American singer-songwriter we know today. His music is often enriched by rhythms from Latin America and beyond and here on Ape in Pink Marble we go quite far beyond; with the odd bed-fellows of Japanese koto playing, 70s elevator music synths and retro Italian disco. Recorded in Los Angeles with producers and long-time collaboraters Noah Georgeson and Josiah Steinbrick, the laid-back vibe and endless sunny days of California have certainly seeped in, creating the perfect setting for Banhart's smooth vocals. A soft, comforting, warm blanket of a voice that often trills off at the end of a phrase with a satisfying warble of vibrato. It's as if Banhart has a Leslie speaker built into his chest that he can flip on at will, it never sounds forced or laboured – the most natural thing in the world, which most singers would find a real challenge to pull off.

The Ape in Pink Marble title can be interpreted as a primitive, or unrefined man, encased in the pink marble of a luxurious hotel lobby. Each of the songs telling different stories that pass through this setting, that gets a mention in several lyrics. I often find myself imagining the hotel itself, as the centre-piece to a Wes Anderson film. There's that timeless, yet distinctly retro feeling to the whole album that creates a sense of place, and that's what I mean when I say it’s his most-cohesive work. There's this sense of tying the whole record to a time and a place; albeit a fictional, or metaphorical space and a dreamy sense of time, even though that is just some nostalgia-soaked non-specific time in the past.

The opening song, and the first to be teased from the album 'Middle Names', is a key track, setting the mood that the album begins and ends with. Banhart's middle name is famously 'Obi', named for the Jedi Knight (kooky parents!) and he sees middle names as being these secret parts of ourselves, that we only reveal to people we know well. Mostly just guitar and voice, this sparse piece is full of longing. Banhart has said it is about a friend of his, a fellow musician who passed away. Asa Ferry, from the band Hearts and Coronets, was famous for disappearing on long benders and this song is apparently quite literally remembering times (including the one rare day when rain fell in LA) when Devendra would walk around LA and wonder if he might bump into his old friend and if he would still recognise him now.

The album ramps up in the middle with two songs that have more of a backbeat than anywhere else on the album, 'Fancy Man' and 'Fig in Leather' manage to move in a different way to the rest of the record without feeling too jarring. They maintain the general aesthetic, while telling these playful, but potentially dark stories of seduction and faded glory. ‘Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green’ begins the climb down from these two up-beat centre-pieces. It’s pure lounge, exotica, floating along with licks of soft jazz and Banhart’s vocal in the chorus sounding like it’s actually run through the tremolo built into a Fender Rhodes, it raises out from the bedroom lo-fidelity when glorious strings rise up in the middle, beautifully recorded and drenched in expensive reverb.

The slight Casio keyboard bossa nova groove, and impressionistic soft keys of ‘Saturday Night’ would make it an odd choice for the lead single and music video contender if it didn’t so perfectly capture the overall mood of the album. The video, with Banhart holding a cute babie, shot in a semi-abstract space of club lights and their lens flares is politely disarming. The lyrics point us toward some of the disquiet bubbling beneath the relaxing vibe of the album, “please don’t love me because you’re through hating you”. This isn’t a Saturday night for partying, it’s one to stay in to brood, contemplate and mourn the ongoing loss of a lover who is still hanging around but not quite coming back. Banhart is making a complex point about loving and longing here, it isn’t enough for his lover to return because she’s over her issues, implying that self-forgiveness and a return to loving are quite distinct phases not to be mistaken for one another. Perhaps this is the source of the melancholy that pervades the album, Banhart is the ape in the lobby, trapped in a melancholy limbo populated by exotic characters waiting for the world to start moving again.

Adam Kidd

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