REVIEW: Devendra Banhart’s “Ma” is a Return to Natural Sounds

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Ma, Devendra Banhart’s third release on Nonesuch Records, jettisons the artificial sounds that have driven his recent work in favor of a return to natural, “human-made,” sounds. Strings, woodwinds, brass, and keyboards build upon Banhart’s vocal and guitar to create an inviting collection examining the nature of motherhood. Banhart, “addresses the unconditional nature of maternal love, the desire to nurture, the passing down of wisdom, the longing to establish the relationship of mother to child, and what happens when that bond gets broken.” Noah Georgeson, a close Banhart collaborator and past producer, is behind the wheel again on this project; their collaborative simpatico is of great benefit on a set of songs where less is more. Born in Texas and raised in Venezuela until his teenage years when his family moved to LA, Banhart is a polyglot who uses multiple languages to maximum effect while never losing the single-language listener. English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese all make an appearance in a series of songs in which emotion carries the day when language fades into the background. A recording experience in a temple in Kyoto, Japan was the original impetus for Ma while the rest of the recording was completed in California at 64 Sound and Seahorse Studios in Los Angeles, Panoramic Studios in Stinson Beach, and Anderson Canyon in Big Sur. Guest vocals from Cate Le Bon and folk legend Vashti Bunyan only add to majesty of this collection.

“Kantori Ongaku”, the official first single, wets fans’ appetites for the record’s upcoming release with an inviting slow but steady groove and typically mystical Banhart lyrics, “it’s getting too late to tell if it’s too soon and the future’s being born right here in this room”. The blend of drums, piano, baritone sax, and Banhart’s subdued vocals is enticing with a melody that instantly captures the listener’s ear. “Is This Nice” finds Banhart questioning and affirming a mother’s desire to be with her child, “is this real, do I mean it, you know that I do, I want to be here really near, I wanna be really here with you,” while “Memorial” confronts the pain of loss, “I couldn’t get through my song for you when it came to say your name”. On “Now All Gone” Cate Le Bon’s presence can be felt beyond her vocals with clear influences on the songs arrangement; “Now All Gone” would fit well in the collection of songs recently released by Le Bon on Reward, her third solo record, or on a Drinks record, her project with White Fence. “You know I love you now, it’s true, there’s a hidden dance only we know how to do,” Banhart sings over what in a lesser-artists hands might be called lounge or elevator music on “Love Song”, but with Banhart’s taste and nuance this borderline bossa nova is seductive instead of off-putting. With Banhart as the operator it’s an elevator I’d love to be trapped in.

Although in Spanish and therefore not immediately accessible to an English speaking audience, “Abre Los Manos” stands out on in the midst of a collection of stellar songs. A slow shuffle, a Spanish guitar with an easy strum, and a beguiling lead line sets the stage for Banhart’s vocal which for a non-Spanish speaking listener functions as an additional instrument. “My Boyfriend’s in the Band” combines languages again to brilliant effect with Spanish on the verses and English on the choruses. Banhart duets with Vashti Bunyan on the record closer, “Will I See You Tonight”. On the chorus their voices intertwine into an aching lament where words bend in an out of intelligibility and where emotional weight matters more than language.

Explaining Ma Banhart says, “I am in stage of my life when all of my closest friends are parents and I am not and I may not be…so this is kind of everything I would say to a child. If I don’t have one, I have made a record where I would have said everything I wanted to say.” Common knowledge argues that the first word a baby learns is often “ma”, but the contrary may be true. Instead of learning the word, maybe babies taught parents the word “ma.” In other words, ponder this…the first consonant and vowel combination a baby can make is “ma,” and that sound became the name given to mother in order to encourage and sanctify the intimate and perennial connection between mother and child. On Ma, Devendra Banhart continues to explore this cherished connection from a variety of angles resulting in a work that is at once somber as well as celebratory.

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