Good for refuge, and little else
Health food stores, Birkenstocks and incense are just a few things Devendra Banhart refers to while discussing his latest project, Refuge, made with the help of producer and longtime friend Noah Georgeson. These are appropriate points of reference for an album as hippie-ish as this one—one can practically smell the patchouli emanating from their speakers.
The biggest inspiration behind Refuge is the new-age music of the 1980s, a love-it-or-hate-it subculture that Banhart and Georgeson both grew up around. New-age exists for purely functional purposes, meant to induce relaxation in listeners and sometimes to aid meditation. A lot of people look down on it—even Georgeson himself did at one point. “Coming from an academically rigorous world, I rejected this kind of music because it’s simple, gestural music,” he said. “It took me a while to come to a place where I was OK with that.”
Thus, Refuge exists primarily to foster a sense of comfort for the listener, and it succeeds in doing so with the help of some hazy synths, delicate, fingerpicked guitars and graceful flutes. But perhaps most telling is the duo’s use of silence, like on “A Cat” and the cavernous “Three Gates,” both of which feature a considerable amount of space. But they aren’t above taking things a step further by tossing in the occasional melody. The strongest one is played by a flute on “Peloponnese Lament,” and the next best one is provided by an icy string section on “For Em.” Whether you need to concentrate on something or, in Banhart’s words, you just want to “heighten the mood and the environment,” this record will help get the job done.
But if people are looking for a project that rewards active listening, Refuge falls a little short. The album isn’t totally devoid of bolder, more attention-grabbing pieces, but there just aren’t enough to bolster the entire album. One can’t really knock Banhart and Georgeson for this—after all, this collaboration is explicitly meant for relaxation and nothing more. Still, people are left with the feeling that maybe they could’ve struck a tighter balance between the ignorable and the interesting.
On a positive note, the few highlight cuts certainly stand out. “Into Clouds” is just one good example, with its uncharacteristically cold, blippy synth pulse and its watery electric guitar. But the best track is the disorienting, almost menacing “Asura Cave.” This track completely switches up the album’s sonic palette, built primarily on cryptic field recordings, Buddhist chants and distorted, quivering vocal samples. It’s all a bit unsettling, but it retains an air of calm with breezy synth lines and naturalist sounds.
With this album, Banhart and Georgeson set out to soothe, and soothe it does. But that’s about it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing—this sort of music isn’t somehow illegitimate simply because it serves a utilitarian purpose. But those listeners who like their ambient music with some edge might want to pass it up, save for a few tracks. Refuge is good for, well, refuge, and little else.