The last time we heard from Devandra Barnhart was 2013’s Mala, an album that received almost universal critical acclaim, sparked talks of being his greatest album to date, and spawned quite possibly his the most popular record in his entire catalogue, 'Never Seen Such Good Things'. Ever since 2009’s Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, Barnhart has somewhat slowed down his pace of releasing records. Whereas they used to come back to back, Barnhart is taking a few years in between projects, and consequently his latter material has been some of the best output of his lengthy career. Saturation doesn’t bode well for a lot of artists, but in Barnhart’s case, his increasingly refined formula might have more to do with both creative and personal maturation as well. For whatever reason, his work on non-musical projects seem to amplify his musical sensibilities, like the 2015 release of his collection of drawings and other artwork entitled 'I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street.' Barnhart’s music best functions when his mind is focused on an array of artistic ideas and notions.
On Ape in Pink Marble, Barnhart’s ninth studio album, he revisits the materials that made the folksy, stripped-down Mala such a success, once again collaborating with musicians Josiah Steinbrick and Noah Georgeson while recording in Los Angeles again. Not to mention, the album is soaked in international flavors, incorporating everything from Japanese and Latin American music to Brazilian staples like the bossa and samba. There is also an element of a loose story involved. Barnhart recently stated that the album takes place in an imaginary Japanese hotel where the music is meant to play in the lobby. Throughout the record, some songs readily relate to this concept while others seem to momentarily stray. But even though there is not a strict narration, the overall aesthetic is truly what matters when one glides through the myriad smooth textures of the album.
Barnhart is at his best when he lets his offbeat personality and perspective on the world flourish. Ape in Pink Marble is even more whimsical and freer a project than Mala, with a slew of comical poetics like 'Fancy Man'. Barnhart manages to keep a serious attitude toward the actual crafting of the material but he is at his best when he keeps a light-hearted view on things. But Barnhart is not Weird Al Yankovic, and the first track of the album and single 'Middle Names' acts as a contemplative reverie of longing, complete with Barnhart’s signature soft lulling-turned-lullaby and acoustic guitar. But Barnhart is back to his playful ways with 'Jon Lends A Hand', where over an earthy ambiance he sings about a beautiful love interest while borrowing a few lines from a man named Jonathan.
The meticulous assortment of instruments Barnhart employs for the album at times makes for infectious listens, like the neo-disco vibe of 'Fig in Leather'. Unlike a lot of music on Ape in Pink Marble – or Barnhart’s wider career for that matter – the track has an instant dance-a-long quality. The ultra-specific 'Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green' is almost cinematic in scope, relating to Japanese hotel lobby theme. On “Mourner’s Dance,” Devendra furthers his sonic experiments, and his hushed, whispered vocals let the instrumentals sing.
Many paid heed to the tweet heard around the world when Barnhart released 'Saturday Night' recently and Blood Orange responded by tweeting that he makes insufferable music. Whether it was some secret ploy by Blood Orange to get fans to check out Barnhart’s music or an authentic diss, no one knows for sure, but 'Saturday Night' is one of the best records on the album. Barnhart croons one of his best lines, “please don’t love me because you’re through hating you”. For the album’s finale, Barnhart goes for what borders on a subdued seance in 'Celebration'. There is no irreverence or whimsy this time around, as Barnhart just repeats the word ‘celebration’ with soft acoustic guitars accompanying him. Ape In Pink Marble may not quite measure up in quality to Mala, but it is definitely a fruitful album by one of the most respected musicians in the business.
7Kellan Miller's Score