Willie Reviews Devendra Banhart’s “Ma”

Willie Reviews Devendra Banhart’s “Ma”

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Singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart’s Ma whispers into your ear until you pay attention to its curious, sincere stories. Here’s RPM’s review:

While listening to “Love Song” on Devendra Banhart’s new album, Ma, I suddenly realized just how proficient a crooner he is, though nontraditional. His notably understated voice does just what all our favorite crooners do: it tries just as hard as it can, but also brushes off any stakes. The crooner wants you to believe that the song could be thrown away and they wouldn’t care a bit. There’s always another easygoing song to sing. I wouldn’t quite put Banhart next to Frank Sinatra or Scott Walker, but his case is bolstered by his consistent commitment to cultivating the air of an authoritative singer in the friendliest way. On Ma, he dips into quite a few different genres, sinking into each role energetically. He sings, at different times, like Haruomi Hosono, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Jorge Ben, Victor Jara, and of course, Vashti Bunyan. When he opens up, he sifts through his influences in full view of the listener. The mechanism is churning inside a clear container, but it makes a sweet, silky sound.

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When Banhart sings, he sings close to the mic. Due to the content of his softer songs, there’s often a dissonance between the words he sings and the power he conveys. “Memorial” hits hard with its emotional weight. In this waltz, he sings a song about a song at a memorial service. The space we enter is hushed and sacred, but his voice is familiar and inviting. It doesn’t feel quite right to float so comfortably by as he sings “I can still see the room at the hospital / Pretty, painted tile / I can still see your skin turning purple.” But still, this is the M.O. of the crooner. They beckon the listener in, no matter the cost. And this explains the first track, “Is This Nice?” Banhart’s words drop between sharp pizzicato notes and he speaks to the listener and the addressee of the song in equal parts: “Is this nice? / Do you like it? / Would you like me to sing you this song? / It begins with a question.” As the album’s preface it’s a funny introduction to complete sincerity. Before it breaks out into a full, orchestrated chorus, it all but points right at you.

Though those songs make up an intense kind of listening, the louder, wackier songs reveal just as much. “Now All Gone,” featuring backing vocals by the incomparable Cate Le Bon, is built around a single two-note lick. In the form of a march, Banhart’s always-precise vibrato is a little eerie. Or, it would be, if he didn’t constantly establish it as a norm. A big part of cultivating an unsurprising and tranquil space on the album in general is the yearning, sweet production. The orchestration ties that consistent voice of his together between bossa nova and alternative rock. The lyrical, fingerstyle guitar work on “Carolina” and “October 12” melds with the more ornamental flourishes on songs like “Ami and “Taking a Page.” Solving this problem of how to fit a guitar into both a sunny, ‘60s style song and a funk-influenced tune is a major success of the album and Noah Georgeson’s production. It’s the kind of question you have to answer if you want to incorporate the organic negative space of jazz, the ruminative quality of folk, and the savoir faire of pop.

Devendra Banhart, photo by Lauren Dukoff

To round off the record, Banhart’s friend and mentor Vashti Bunyan makes an appearance on the last track, “Will I See You Tonight?” While Banhart can occasionally become overeager in his songwriting, lovely as it might be, Bunyan’s unflappable calm wins out here. Wisely, Banhart looks to her for balance as they breathlessly duet. It really is a special treat to hear them together, and so much of Banhart’s style makes sense with their shared interests in mind. His own style finds solid footing in her vocal presence, and they bring to a close an album which wanders joyfully.

Score: For fans of music.

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