Album Review: Devendra Banhart – “Ape in Pink Marble”

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Just a few days after dropping his latest album Ape in Pink Marble, Devendra Banhart released the video for the album’s second single “Saturday Night”, featuring the folk poet softly singing and two-stepping on the dance floor of some dingy dive bar with a baby cradled tightly in his arms. It’s probably one of the few things in life that seems to perfectly encapsulate the essence of what it feels like to listen to a Devendra Banhart record. Easy listening, bossa-nova shuffles with an irreverent and deceptively simple backbeat that can croon you to a more peaceful, rejuvenated sense of self. At least that’s how I took it. To me, it’s one of those records you wind up listening to after a long week of spreadsheets and morning commutes. With his signature singing style, staccato whispers that are almost a cross between Lenny Williams or even Jack Johnson, Devendra serves up some delicately sensible lyrics provocative enough for personal, philosophical epiphanies to brew. Like wandering along the quiet shores of some sort of out-stretched, unmapped oasis, Ape in Pink Marble will help you figure your shit out.

The record opens with “Middle Names”, a low-stakes, re-imagining of Dan Bejar’s “Chinatown”, punctuated with somber arpeggios, finger-guitar strumming, and intimate lyrics about the sudden loss of a very close friend. Some of the most touching lines read: “And I can see you now / Sitting there in front of the station / Feel the rain fall down again / I’d love to be there now, but I’m heading in the other direction / Feel the rain fall”. It’s a beautiful albeit dark song about not only what it means to grieve, but also what it means to love in tough times. After “Middle Names” the record slowly begins to cheer up though. The following track, “Good Time Charlie”, is a song with a strange and seemingly nonsensical narrative about the daily life of a run-of-the-mill police officer. There’s also a point where Devendra casually pontificates about how the Devil’s penchant for day-dreaming of “paid vacations” is letting “the old men win”. The tail end of “Good Time Charlie” seems to also help the first half of the record blend in a bit more smoothly with the second by foreshadowing the electro-grooves that can be heard in songs like “Fig in Leather” and “Saturday Night”.

“Fancy Man”, the perhaps most beachy of all the songs on the record, offers a pleasant change of pace in the instrumentation: subtle electro-blips, jazzy guitar slides, and a melodic sing-song-y air. It’s the perfect seg-way into “Fig in Leather”, a sort of Saturday Night Fever-inspired track where Devendra plays the role of a good host of some intimate, karaoke party exclusive for just a few close friends and acquaintances. Hello, is that you? / Come right in, have a seat / Remove your shoes, enjoy some fruits / Did I mention “have a seat”?, he tells you as you make your way to the appetizer table. Though, after a few drinks, the vibe of the party begins to settle with “Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green”, one of the few standout songs in my opinion. It’s one of the most explicit jazz tracks on the album that’s distilled down to the very elements that makes Devendra’s music so effective.

Overall though,  Ape in Pink Marble is like that one friend you have who’s always willing to lend a hand – constantly reminding you to just chill out, and have a good time already. It is, arguably, his most satisfying album in quite some time.

Rating: 8.5/10

Jennifer Baugh is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and contributor for The Young Folks. She also writes and draws her own comics and other wonky illustrations over at her personal blog http://jenniferbaugh.tumblr.com.