In this little thing we call the music scene, there's a dwindling amount of genuinely funny, modest, and likeable characters. Despite what YouTube commenters may lead you to believe, there's no shortage of innovative and interesting musicians in these ever changing times. But there is an abundance of awkward folk who shuffle their feet and mumble something about them liking their music and hoping some other people do too, from underneath a jumper their pudgy Labrador slept in for almost a decade.
I haven't had the pleasure of meeting or talking to Devendra Banhart, and maybe I'm just falling prey to imaginative music journalism, but reading about his eclectic and relatable taste in music (Orange Juice, Yo la Tengo, Pulp to name a few), his warm humour, his genuine modesty and his honesty feels like drinking good coffee on a cold day. Like the teacher that became pals with his students, uneasily marking their work, it's hard to bring yourself to mark Banhart down for any lack of effort on his part. So on listening to Mala, his eighth studio album, it's reassuring to know that, actually, he's made some pretty good music.
Picking up his long time bandmate Noah Georgeson (who co-produces the album) and a Tascam recorder from a pawnshop, Banhart set out to record Mala in his home at the time, in LA. It's a much more homely approach compared to the grander, guest-appearance-filled Crippled Crow, and it's less crowded than his last effort, the slightly patchy What Will We Be.
Mala reads like a collection of good short stories, with each one serving as a porthole into a particular feeling without hanging around for too long - "I held a rose / you held who knows / but that's fine / and we fell in love / we fell in love at the John Reid choir / and right there and then / I swore to them then / swore to never let you go / but love's got a way of fading away." If you're looking for snappy wit it's not here; in its place is a stream of reflective poetry. And it would be a little insulting to say Mala is just boys crying over girls - in a few lines the singer-songwriter can weave a tale of a medieval feminists, of frayed parental relationships, and of unexpected death at a tragically young age into a handful of lines, in his crooning, earthy voice.
If it's not immediately clear that Banhart took inspiration from Britpop artists such as Jarvis Cocker from his observant, stream of consciousness lyrical commentary, then we can see it referenced in songs like 'Daniel', where he's pandering over memories of a girl while they "waited in line to see Suede". Thankfully this doesn't show up in the melody at all - there's no bouncing around, thrashing power chords or six syllable spewings of the word 'imagination'.
His guitar work isn't particularly striking, unique or groundbreaking, which in some ways is a shame. Being sympathetic, it's pleasing to not have any unnecessary noodling ruining his fantastic lyrics. His Venezuelan roots show clearer on this album than perhaps any other. The guitar is less springy and 'freak folk' - it's more a meandering, laidback-sounding approach, like he's pouring his heart out onto sun baked cobbled streets, with no-one around to sip it up. Despite the singer-songwriter's recent engagement (with the fiancée in question duetting with him on the track 'Your Fine Petting Duck') the overall theme on Mala is of quiet sadness, and fortunately it's not executed in an overly sickly manner.
Mala is an album of contradictions. It's homely and warm, but it's also cold and lonely; it's sundried acoustic, but one of the tracks blooms into a house inspired beat - and then you find out that the keyboard part you like so much is actually birdsong dropped down an octave or two. But it all flows together incredibly well. What Will We Be, despite having good intentions and more than a few good ideas, was overflowing a little and ebbed and bobbed because of it. Devendra Banhart's eighth effort finds himself tapping into a particular sound particularly well, and coming out smelling of roses for it.