Adam’s Underrated Records #6
“Ape In Pink Marble” by Devendra Banhart
Stories of Criminally Overlooked Albums
by Adam Fitzgerald
@adamwfitzgerald on Twitter
“Ape In Pink Marble” by Devendra Banhart
Best songs: “Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green” — “Fig in Leather” — “Fancy Man” — “Saturday Night” – “Middle Names” – “Celebration” – “Mourner’s Dance” –“Lucky”
Genres: folk, indie, jazz, rock, pop, alternative, singer-songwriter
Influences: Donovan, Serge Gainsbourg, Joao Gilberto, The Velvet Underground, Simon Diaz, Elliott Smith, T. Rex, Nick Drake, Sparklehorse
Devendra Banhart is one of the most unique voyeurs to arise from the vast musical landscape of the last twenty years. Garnering attention as a young artist in the late 90s and dropping out of art school in San Fransisco to pursue music, Devendra put out his first solo album in 2002 and has been a prolific artist across several mediums ever since. I had no idea then that he would become one of my all time favorite artists.
Banhart is a Venezuelan American who was born in Houston, Texas, raised in Venezuela and moved to California as a teen. As such, he has a very distinct cross-cultural world-weary make-up, both genetically and artistically. Like his friend and frequent collaborator Rodrigo Amarante, Devendra Banhart sings in multiple languages (sometimes spanning three or four languages in a single record) but usually he sticks to Spanish and English.
I must admit that at first, I was not super hip to Devendra Banhart. The entire “freak folk” movement seemed like another timebomb of a genre, destined to combust. But here we are, years later, still talking about Animal Collective, Sufjan Stevens, Dirty Projectors and Devendra Banhart — even though the style of each artist and group has changed, most of them having long since parted with the speciously named concept of “freak folk.”
Devendra used to wear dresses and makeup on stage and in videos, juxtaposing his large beard and skinny frame, becoming known for his intriguing tattoos and sexually provocative art. Banhart created his own amalgam of Latin-inspired folk pop that shares common ground with everyone from Joao Gilberto to Serge Gainsbourg, from Leonard Cohen to Lou Reed. He became an icon of indie. This is the guy who dated Natalie Portman for years, and even got her to appear in the video for one of his best and most well known songs.
At first, to me personally, Devendra seemed like another over the top exhibitionist, more content to make a scene than make the art. But over time, I kept hearing songs that really captivated me. “Baby” was one, then “Carmensita” became a favorite and then the song “Lover” popped up in a few soundtracks. Then my good friend and fellow writer Alex Petrie found out I was snoozing on Devendra, and he told me I needed to get my shit together. He showed me a few songs that I instantly loved.
Fast forward a few years later and I’m up north, in a house in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with my then girlfriend (now wife) and some of our closest friends. Our friend Randy, the handsome, educated and well-spoken man who married us, started playing us a record while we were all hanging out. As time went on, I liked each song more than the last. That album ended up being “Mala” by Devendra Banhart. Devendra cut his hair, trimmed his beard, dropped the makeup and dramatics, tightened his focus and was years in to a relationship with a fellow artist. He also switched labels to the subtle stronghold of modern geniuses: Nonesuch Records.
(It should be noted that Devendra is also an incredible visual artist, working aross several mediums — he does almost all of his own artwork and the website of his record label says: “An accomplished visual artist, Banhart’s distinctive, minutely inked, often enigmatic drawings have appeared in galleries all over the world, including the Art Basel Contemporary Art Fair in Miami; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels; and Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2015 Prestel published I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street, a collection of his drawings, paintings, and mixed media pieces. He has created the cover art for most of his records, and in 2010 his artwork and packaging for What Will We Be was nominated for a Grammy.” — Nonesuch Records.)
When it came out in 2013, “Mala” became a very special record for my wife and I. If these articles continue to get written, “Mala” will undoubtedly get its own fully realized and well-deserved story; as will the lovely and enveloping album “Cavalo” by Devendra’s friend and occasional touring guitar player Rodrigo Amarante. For now, suffice it to say, we became true Devendra Banhart fans thanks to “Mala.” His music became the soundtrack for some of my favorite memories and also got me through some of the toughest times. He makes happy songs, sad songs and almost always, they are deep songs.
Devendra and his girlfriend (wife?) Ana Kras became role models and inspirational figures for my own wife and I: they are both artists who supported each other and they were constantly traveling, producing and really living life.
Finally, we come to 2016. What a year that was. But at the tail end of that hellish trip around the sun, right when everything was really starting to hit the fan, Devendra released his latest record, the focus of this story: “Ape In Pink Marble.” This album continues in a similar vein as “Mala” as Devendra produced both records with the same guys: his frequent collaborators, friends and bandmates, multi-instrumentalist (and soothing synth specialist) producer Josiah Steinbrick, guitarist / multi-instrumentalist Noah Georgeson, and drummer/ percussionist Gregory Rogove.
Across his career Devendra’s music has spanned many genres — folk, tropicalia, psychedelia, rock, jazz, singer-songwriter, Latin, pop, Eastern, bossa nova, blues, you name it — and his signature brand of meshing styles continues to develop here, taking turns both light and heavyhearted, risks that work and some that don’t — Devendra delivers a record that is instantly memorable and coherent. The synths used on this record are so special, it’s hard to describe them all in words. Imagine walking into the Cave of Wonders and every crystal you see has its own synth patch — I think Devendra and Josiah Steinbrick found that Cave of Wonders.
The opening track “Middle Names” sets a somber tone with bittersweet moments. A loving and intimate song, “Middle Names” opens “Ape In Pink Marble” on a heartfelt note and sets the precedent for an unflinchingly honest record about life, death, aging, love, loss and more. “Middle Names” is a stripped down song, showing Devendra has matured as a folk artist who can sew together cryptic stories with layers of meaning using only his voice and a guitar. As the album progresses, more bass, drums, synthesizers, strings, mellotrons and percussion join Devendra’s incredible songwriting to heavenly results.
Devendra has said “Middle Names” is about his friend and fellow musician Asa Ferry — Devendra said, “This song was written for Asa Ferry, front man of the Los Angeles–based orchestral-pop outfit Kind Hearts & Coronets. Asa passed away 10 months ago. Honestly I’m still in shock and hoping he’ll show up at my door any day now. I loved him very much. He had not passed away when I started writing Middle Names. It was initially about thinking I saw him waiting at a bus stop, and then the feeling of knowing we were both wandering through the city, possibly only a block away from each other but not knowing it, the feeling of alone together.”
With the opening track, Devendra also shares concepts that reoccur throughout “Ape In Pink Marble” and become motifs, such as when he sings the line, “I used to think that you’d always return to your woman-in-waiting.” More on that later — I can’t stress enough how amazing the lyrics in this album are. The dependable and delicately plucked guitar notes at the perfect undercurrent to Devendra’s deep ruminations.
“Middle Names” is also the first track Devendra released from the album. I immediately fell in love with the song but I didn’t understand it. Before I knew about the death of his friend, I interpreted “Middle Names” as a break up song of sorts — especially considering the lines “My love belongs to no one/ And just about the only thing left is a light/ I wonder where you are/ Then I wonder again.” Sadly, I do think Devendra and Ana parted ways, but it is this uncertainty and these unanswered questions that fuel “Ape In Pink Marble” and give it a more direct, honest and intimate appeal.
“Middle Names” lays down a foundation for the album that continues coherently. My wife, myself, our friend Randy and his girlfriend BA all got to see Devendra when he played Detroit on his last tour and I must say it was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to me in my life — and I have seen shows, concerts and performances easily numbering into the thousands. Devendra is mesmerizing live; the music takes on a whole new life. He reminds me of a roaming gypsy, a true vagabond of an artist who shares wisdom, wine and good memories with those around him.
Track two “Good Time Charlie” remains similar to the opening track in that there isn’t much to the song other than guitar, some sweetly cooing vintage synths and Devendra’s voice. The instrumentation grows piece by piece as the record progresses, showcasing beautiful production flourishes like marimba and layers of subtle synths. But even on the more “minimal” tracks, Devendra manages to weave a tapestry of many colors and incredible intricacy. When Devendra introduced this song “Good Time Charlie” live he said, “This is my life,” so ironic lyrics like “Every look begins with a disguise/ I saw it in your eyes/ Me, I’ve worn them all/ Mostly been a bathroom stall/ An out-of-work blow-up doll/ A memory you can’t recall/ Or nobody there at all” take on more weight with repeated listens.
“Jon Lends a Hand” breathes life into the album with a pulsing groove that makes it super easy to tap your foot along to the drums. Devendra begins to dish out his typically catchy and clever words and it becomes apparent that although he has evolved, he is the same fun-loving trickster. “Ape In Pink Marble” is full of quirky little intros, outros and sharp left turns that seem intentionally thrown in, as if maybe just for giggles. The first few songs on the record demonstrate this fun-loving nature pretty well.
Shit starts to get really weird on “Mara” — a quirky, dark meditation on the scars of love, as demonstrated by the refrain “I fell from one trap to the next/ I fell from one trap to the next.” I was surprised when he and his band played this song live, as it has a very disjointed groove, with haphazard rhythms and occasional guitar lines that teeter in and out of tune just like you might hear on a Velvet Underground record. But nonetheless, they killed it. Like every other song on “Ape” — “Mara” pulls in the listener and fades out like a dream.
The record really hits its stride with “Fancy Man” –a classic Devendra track — funny and playful, all while being ridiculously catchy and bursting to the seams with his own brand of gleefully hazy globetrotting jukebox jives. “Fig in Leather” follows “Fancy Man” and immediately inspires dancing. When we saw him live, the entire audience was moving in sync with him and his band, as if captivated by a spell.
Both “Fancy Man” and “Fig in Leather” seem to center around a similar protagonist, if not the very same aging not-so-subtly-suave sex symbol — perhaps a meta or fictionalized version of Devendra himself or maybe just more of his own comments on aging and different cultures in general. “Fig in Leather” is like Devendra decided to make an ABBA-influenced disco song with his own satirical twist. Most of the lyrics are nonsensical boastings of an aging and potentially out of touch Lothario. While lyrics like “Hello, is that you? / Come right in, have a seat/ Remove your shoes, enjoy some fruit/ Did I mention have a seat?” inspire laughs, Devendra still manages to hide nuggets of wisdom in alongside silly lyrics, like the sly observation, “I know the whole world eats with its eyes.”
“Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green” is one of the best songs Devendra (or maybe anyone) has ever committed to tape. Every little thing about this song works. There are so many beautiful and blissful moments in this song that the listener can truly lose oneself in the music. Several songs on “Ape In Pink Marble” warrant relistens, but perhaps none more so than “Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green” — when the music quiets and the string section comes in to the lament alongside Devendra’s crooning — there are few moments in life that are of such profound and pure beauty.
Lyrically, Devendra is on the top of his game: some of the most thoughtful and poignant lyrics I’ve ever found anywhere are contained within “Ape In Pink Marble” — including several lines from “Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green” like this line that became one of my favorite lyrics ever: “Love’s the only lesson everyone knows how to teach/ And love’s only ever pretending to be out of reach.”
“Souvenirs” is another track that seems to find Devendra looking back on old love and contemplating life. Mysterious lyrics like “’Cause when love shows its face/ The rest just falls into place/ And all of the pain/ All of the pain… / That followed the lady in waiting/ lady in waiting/ for a heart not alone anymore” are what make Devendra the ironic iconic enigma that he is. This reoccurring shattered concept of “the lady in waiting” (“woman-in-waiting” in “Middle Names”) seems to point toward repeated lessons learned.
“Mourner’s Dance” is one of my favorites on the record. The song reminds me of “Atmosphere” by Joy Division, with its somber yet hopeful meditations on death. Enlightening lyrics like, “The early writings show the sequence of the dance/ The individual awakens and expands/ Between the origins/ Between the dawn” and “Learn to identify the blossom in plain view/ It will consume your body when the dance is through/ There is no real you, there is only ever you/ There is no real you, there is only ever you” entice listeners to awaken to unknown possibilities of life and death before the melodic refrain of “We remember you” gets forever engrained in their minds.
There is an unmistakable Eastern influence on “Ape In Pink Marble” — certain synths sound as if they were modified to sound like rare Asian instruments. Production wise, Devendra and his friends don’t mind throwing in the kitchen sink — but they do it so subtly it’s sexy. Where as in the past Devendra would have meandering medleys and influences from all over the map sometimes in the space of one song, “Ape In Pink Marble” is consistent and tend to conjure a delightfully Eastern-form of delicate mysticism within the songs.
The mysterious and meandering “Linda” finds Devendra at his most down-trodden and gloomy, reminiscing on what life could be like as a lonely old woman. Perhaps an apt comparison to how we all feel sometimes; as depression can rain upon even the sunniest of campers, like Devendra. The song even pitters out in the middle, unexpectedly starting back up again, the entire song itself creeping in and out of focus.
“Lucky” is one of my favorite songs on the record, rhapsodizing in an admirable Lou Reed style, this chill “cool rock” number finds Devendra counting his blessings and sharing his gratitude with those around him. There are so many lines on this album that will sneak into your heart and musical memory: for me it’s the “Another reason why I’m lucky/ Another reason why I’m lucky…” refrain that matches a guitar riff.
“Celebration” closes the album on a perfect note of tranquility, using the title as the song’s only lyric. Devendra paints a picture of life as one grand celebration, no matter the ups and downs. Except for “Linda” all the songs are pretty short and focus ed— truly crystalized concepts condensed into easily digestible songs that are just short enough to make you want to listen over and over again.
Love lusting or lovelorn, Devendra Banhart relates ideas through his endearing and entrancing music that any person could understand. Lines like “I know so very little about so many things/ And oh so much about nothing” and “Now I embody/ The same song stuck on repeat/ Drunk mom in the lobby/ Sad cop on the beat” seem to convey his own confusion and loss during life, while a line like “I can’t wait to close my mouth and not say a thing/ but love’s making me sing” relates the genuine ironic splendor of love throughout this messy ride we call life.
You can follow Devendra Banhart online at his website or through his excellent Tumblr that he updates regularly as a travel photo blog he calls a “Chumblr” (where I got several of the photos I used for this story from!)
You can buy “Ape In Pink Marble” and its excellent 2013 counterpart “Mala” through Devendra’s page on Nonesuch Records’ website.