In Brief: A strong mainstream debut that shows marked improvement for a promising indie folk band, without sacrificing its quirky personality in the process.
About a year ago, I discovered the band The Last Bison through a promotion on NoiseTrade.com, a website devoted to spreading the word on behalf of independent bands, who offer their music for download in exchange for either a modest donation, or completely free if you’re willing to pass the word along to friends. Promotional materials had begged the band as a cross between Fleet Foxes, Mumford & Sons, and The Decemberists. At the time, I was familiar with two of the three – I’m a huge fan of Fleet Foxes, but I only have passing knowledge of The Decemberists, and I didn’t get into Mumford & Sons until later in the year. I probably should have known better than to expect too much from the Fleet Foxes comparison. The members of The Last Bison (or simple “Bison”, as they were called back then) are from Virginia, which is the kind of place you’d expect the Appalachian-influenced music that any of the aforementioned bands make to have come from, rather than England or the Pacific Northwest. And these guys and gals certainly know their way around their instruments, coming equipped with equal amounts of classical influence and backwoods twang, thanks to various instruments such as the banjo, pump organ, mandolin, cello, and viola, that are played by various members of this septet. But if you come in expecting the cool, breezy harmonies that Fleet Foxes are known for, then you’re in for a startling surprise. While lead singer Ben Hardesty can harmonize beautifully with his brother and sister, most of the time his voice is out there on its own, and let me tell you folks, it is a rough one. Marcus Mumford sounds positively smooth by comparison. And while there’s something to be said for the unfiltered energy that a rough-hewn voice like this can bring to an earthy folk band, the experience of hearing him excitedly inhale before a particularly powerful vocal line, or hit a raspy rough spot in the middle of an otherwise calming melody, could well be a barrier for some listeners. It certainly served as one for me at first.
If there’s one thing that this band really has in common with Fleet Foxes, it’s their habit of changing directions mid-song without warning. A lot of the Foxes’ best work plays like two or three short songs fused together, with one melody or motif quite suddnly taking a hard left into a completely different one with its own rhythm that didn’t seem logically related, and at first, I sort of felt like The Last Bison was imiating this aspect of their music without really understanding it. I had to remember that I didn’t really “get” that aspect of Fleet Foxes’ music at first, either, until I realized that it usually resulted in the combination of two beautiful halves to make a unique and refreshing whole. The Last Bison may be a little more animated and occasionally downright wacky with their melodies, so they tend to be more oddball than soothing, but I’ve realized that they have a gift for this nonetheless. It allows a song to break from an otherwise repetitive refrain, giving a finger-oicked or stringed or percussion instrument a chance to show off, or making room for an interesting passage full of harmony vocals. The result is that nothing they do seems conspicuously crafted to function as a radio single. And while their lyrics lean heavily on the Christian allegories at times, it’s also notable that none of their songs feel like they’re pandering to an audience raised on simplistic religious music. Awkward and idiosyncratic as their lyrics and performances may seem on first glance, there’s a unique charm and personality to their approach that keeps me coming back.
The band’s first major label release, Inheritance, is mostly a reworking of the best songs on their one and only full-length indie release, Quill. I’ve spent enough time with Quill to fall in love with a few of its songs, but I felt like a lot of them were overwrought or needed refining, and the arrangements on Inheritance mostly solve those problems. For the most part, it doesn’t seem like the label did a whole lot of meddling, other than perhaps to trim the lengths of certain songs a tad by getting rid of unnecessary asides. There might be one or two points where I prefer an older arrangement, or perhaps a fusion of the two, but for the most part, the new versions display a tightened energy that I’d imagine is a little closer to what their acclaimed live performances must sound like. The only truly annoying omission here is that the song “Iscariot” was missing – it was a thoroughly un-subtle, but strikingly performed, epic about Judas betraying Jesus that I understand probably wouldn’t play well with more of a mainstream audience. Still, the songs that were carried over from the band’s indie days don’t exactly hide their religious roots, which is apparent right from the get-go. So I’m not sure what the reasoning was there. But the songs left out made room for four new compositions, one of which approaches the breathtaking heights of a Fleet Foxes song without feeling like it follows their exact template, and the other three being generally stronger than the old songs they’ve replaced. All in all, this makes Inheritance a stronger release than its predecessor, and a good way for fans of thoughtful and creative folk music who wouldn’t have necessarily caught wind of them as an indie band to become newly acquainted with the group. If Quill was the rehearsal, then Inheritance is the opening night, with several of its performances worthy of standing ovations.
The title track is actually just the instrumental intro from Quill‘s title track. Confused? Don’t worry about it. For whatever reason, either the band or the label decided that this minute-long intro, rich with swaying vocal harmonies, sawing fiddle, and earthy percussion, deserved to be titled as its own distinct composition. It’s still beautiful, and still an excellent first taste of the band.
The original “Quill” was essentially a mini-suite of three seemingly unrelated pieces that still segued nicely into one another. First was the lovely intro now separated out as “Inheritance”. Second, there’s the main body of the song, really just a few verses and a chorus’ worth of a mission statement for the band, declaring “We will run away/From those who’d lead us astray/Searching hard, we will fully rely/On the grace of the one crucified.” There’s no doubt where this band is coming from spiritually, and I’ll admit that I found this lyric to be hackneyed at first, but they sell it well enough with the driving mandolin and acoustic guitar, the stomping percussion, and the powerful vocal trio front and center. The third segment jumps from this fast-paced, four-on-the-floor rhythm to a bit of a circus-like waltz, the violin squealing in surprise while the glockenspiel runs up and down the scale whimsically. It’s really got nothing to do with anything, but it’s fun and unpredictable, and I’ve grown to love the way that The Last Bison throws these curious little asides into so many of their songs.
If you’re at all curious about this band, and would like to test the waters with a song that doesn’t hit you too hard over the head with religious imagery, this would be the absolute best place to start. It was my introduction to the band, being the opening track on Quill and all, and while the two songs have sort of switched roles, I’m glad that it was preserved here, re-recorded in a version that is thoroughly faithful to the original (aside from losing a few seconds of instrumental warm-up at the beginning), but that benefits from the crisper production values of a decent studio budget. The banjo riff in this one is downright iconic, with its confident finger-picking and the two very loud, authoritative strums that interrupt it. I find myself humming it as I go about my day. It doesn’t hurt that Hardesty’s verse melody follows it, giving it more than enough time to sink into your brain. Now that I’ve adjusted to his vocal style, I love the gusto in his performance – you can imagine him as the stocky leader of a group of adventurers holed in a pub for the night, regaling listeners with tales of their exploits in the Swiss alps. The lyrics might as well be the travelogue of a bunch of guys who did the whole “take a year off from college and go trekking through Europe” thing, struggling to find decent places to sleep at night and balking at the price of a nice cold lager for refreshment at the end of a long day of trudging through the snow. The whole experience leaves them awestruck and humbled: “Oh Switzerland/You’ve taken away my breath now once again/You left me with a sense of compassion/For the ones who can’t pick themselves up off the ground.” Just like in “Quill”, the band takes a sudden detour into an intricate and captivating bridge partway through, which features a searing fiddle solo, but this time around, they bring the song full circle, leading back around to the chorus in more of a quiet and reflective manner. This song demonstrates several sides of the band’s personality at once, and I love everything that it has to offer.
4. Dark Am I
Quite strangely, the songs that opened and closed the album Quill are now back-to-back in their re-recorded forms. This moody, yet upbeat, and thoroughly enigmatic number has been streamlined a bit for the new album. Its driving mandolin strums feel more urgent now, its cello is downright brooding, Annah Hardesty‘s harmony vocals seem stronger and more defiant, and the percussion adds more weight than the song originally had, since in its previous incarnation, it was an admirable performance that never quite seemed to come to a climax. Hardesty works the song’s tense melody for all its worth, his words ringing out like a call to a forbidden lover: “Staring through every window/Staring ’til the glass does break/Hiding on the mountainside/Descend the cliffs and let me see your face.” The chorus is the most perplexing part of the song, since it could be referring to an illicit temptation, or to some form of undeserved redemption: “Dark am I, yet lovely.” You’ll get no easy answers from this one. My only major gripe here – and the thing that keeps me from giving the song full marks – is that the original ending of the song, which was a breakdown of fiddle, bells, and vocal shouts that felt like a triumphant way to close out a live show, has been excised in favor of the more middle-of-the-road approach, closing it out by repeating the opening riff. New listeners won’t know the difference, but I’m a bit disappointed when this one cuts out early and leaves me hanging. Still, the remainder of the song has definitely been improved.
5. River Rhine
With song titles like this and “Switzerland”, and the pastoral vibe of them evoking images of alpine landscapes cut through by rushing rivers, I keep forgetting that these guys are an American band, not a European one. This is the first “true ballad” of the album, and it’s shortened a bit from its original incarnation, but nothing essential is missing. It’s a simple ode to a majestic river, and to good food, good wine, and the company of friends and family. You can almost picture Hardesty proposing a toast as he croons: “Oh, for you to be with your blood kin and me/As the floors creak beneath an embrace unforeseen/On these stairs, drinking our wine/By River, River Rhine.” It’s that “River, River Rhine” hook that really sticks with you, despite it being soft and understated – his siblings join in there, and the third time through, they add an extra “River”, just to throw off the rhythm of the song, which at first struck me as an amateurish mistake, but I’ve come to regard it as a charming quirk. The bridge picks up the pace ever so slowly, with a gentle organ melody and the upright bass a little higher in the mix than usual. But for the most part, this one’s more “hearthy” than “hearty”.
6. Tired Hands
Remember the whimsical bells and wacky melodic twists that came in at the end of “Quill”? This song is all about those. It doesn’t seem so at first, given the drawn-out violin and cello intro that starts it off in more of a somber fashion, but then it hits you out of nowhere with its topsy-turvy instrumental hook. Honestly, this wasn’t one of my favorites on Quill – it seemed like they were dragging it out and adding far too many cute little asides to it for the song to flow. Here, it’s been cleaned up a bit without losing its eccentric character, which reflects the confusion of a man beseeching God for depserately needing answers to prayer, and wondering if the Old Man is even listening. Once you grasp what the song is about, its many twists and turns seem fitting, reflecting how easy it can be for a person of faith to waver in their devotion when something of crucial importance is on the line. Hardesty quite nearly explodes into a hissy fit during the chorus – there’s a line where he sings, “Its a product of absence, I’m sure/Still I over-analyze”, and his voice hits this screechy rough patch every time the word “absence” comes around. It’s gonna be rough on the ears the first few times, I can guarantee you that. This was there in the original version, and it’s a purposeful bit of vocal spice, not a mistake that they just left in. Also conspicuous for those familiar with the original recording are the empty spaces between each line of the chorus where the band once vigorously shouted, “Hey!” Admittedly, that got a bit overbearing in the old version, so I’m leaning towards this being a good decision. But maybe they could have left them in just for the last time around, to add a little extra punch? Eh, I’m nitpicking. Once again we’ve got a solid song whose arrangement has been mostly been improved from a flawed, but promising, demo version.
7. Take All the Time
This is the first of the four newly written songs, and let me tell you, it’s an instant winner. The vocal melody at the beginning of it just drips with soft rock sweetness, circa the early 1970s, and here I can at last admit that a comparison to Fleet Foxes would be warranted. You could have told me for the first thirty seconds or so that this was a preview of the new Fleet Foxes album, and I’d have totally believed you. It’s got that whole “Take an unusual chord progression and wring the most achingly expectant melody out of it that you can” thing going for it, and it’s only when Hardesty joins his siblings, who continue that ethereal hook behind his lead vocals, that I remember I’m listening to The Last Bison. That isn’t a bad thing – the contrast between his rugged approach and the surprising bits of falsetto that he pulls off here make me realize that the guy’s got an uncanny ability to sound like two completely different vocalists, one low and gruff, the other high and serene, sort of like a less caustic Joseph Arthur. The lyrics seems to describe a precious, but painfully short, visit from a dear loved one, as he offers her every available second of free time that he can scrounge up, even foregoing sleep to prolong the moment when they must say goodbye again. It might be an allegory, even a prayer, for all I know. But the mystery certainly adds to the beauty of the song. I thought I knew what to expect from The Last Bison, and along came this song with its own distinct vibe, reminding me that they’re capable of textured elegance despite the seemingly un-sanded edges of most of their other songs.
8. Watches and Chains
There was a song on Quill called “The Woodcutter’s Son” that seemed overly precious in its attempt to weave a clever allegory. This, the second new song on Inheritance, struck me similarly at first, since the analogy between a father leaving his family for a time to go out on the road selling watches and chains, and the bickering that ensues between his family while he is gone, is fairly transparent to Christian listeners – I picked up right away that this was meant to be about Jesus’ ascension and eventual second coming, and leaving behind the Holy Spirit (in this song, the “mother”) to guide us in the interim. The problem isn’t as pronounced here, but it’s still an issue of not totally sticking to the analogy, and just coming straight out and explaining it instead: “So get in your Bible and read/The passages written for thee/So rumors don’t set in as truth/So your neighbors lies don’t get to you.” (Plus, they’re mixing “you” and “thee” when referring to the same person, which is always a pet peeve of mine when Christian songwriters try to get all King James-y on us.) But despite my nitpicks, this is another solid performance, amping up the jerky, ADD musical motions that gave “Tired Hands” its character, bringing the band to a near state of cacophony as the worried son is badgered about the apparent weakness of his faith in his father’s absence: “All his morals, his theology/Have been left to decay/Where’s your fruit, where’s your meat, where’s your bread?/Have you eaten today?” It’s the unusual personality the the band pours into it, deliberately contrasting the song’s peaceful moments with its frantic ones, that ultimately win me over.
9. Autumn Snow
A simple, devotional song comes up next, which is the last of the re-recorded tunes from Quill, and the only one to maintain its position on the new album. The original recipe for this one was simple – elegantly finger-picked acoustic guitar meeting up with a “chamber music” approach provided by the violin and cello, and not a whole lot of muss and fuss to it. It’s been streamlined a bit to shorten the runtime, but the song is essentially the same otherwise. It sounds almost like the sort of thankful prayer that the early pilgrims might have offered up, observing the patterns of nature, the need to sow and reap as the seasons dictate, the expression of gratitude even for the simple materials to weave together clothing for themselves and benefit from a good, hard day’s work, and the recognition that God’s hand has guided all of the work that they do. Listening to this, you might believe that these folks had simply stumbled across an old prayer journal on display at Jamestown, or something like that, and simply decided to set it to music.
New song #3 seems to pick up where “Take All the Time” left off, thematically speaking. Over nervous guitar picking, Hardesty’s words come in urgent, yet broken, syllables, the abstract lyrics slowly weaving a picture of a man left alone, regretting his decision to be apart from someone he loves. His own cowardice seems to have been the thing that undid the relationship as he laments in one of the album’s strongest choruses: “Distance is not for the fearful/Darling, it is for the bold/And in exchange for time with you, dear/I will spend more time alone.” I love the stomping and the clackety-clack of the percussion as everyone joins in to sing that chorus – it’s the perfect mix of energetic showmanship and heart-on-sleeve transparency. I’ve noticed in a few of these songs that the string arrangements have gotten more intricate, taking the band a little farther from twangy folk territory and putting them a little closer to baroque pop. I don’t mind, so long as they don’t abandon one entirely while exploring the other.
The final new song ends the album on a bit of a cliffhanger, building slowly and dramatically towards its troubling climax. It seems to be an abstract retelling of the story of Samson and Delilah – and I say “abstract” as a compliment – I’m glad that I had to work a bit to figure that one out. Hardesty sings in falsetto for most of the song, slightly reassuring yet slightly sinister, as if taking on the perspective of Delilah, beckoning the lover she’s about to betray to come lay his head in her lap so that she can cut the hair that gives him his superhuman strength. As the string section wrings one final bit of melancholy from its system, building up to the final refrain, the perspective switches to that of Samson, now held captive by his enemies, as he notes the irony of his situation: “Now that I’m blind, Lord, I see.” The ending seems almost anti-climactic, given how softly the words are delivered, but as the album hangs on its last tense note, those who pay attention to the words will understand the end of the story: “And the buttresses they fell down/As the sandstone engulfed the crowd/Through the darkness the blind man sees/Entertaining them on his knees.” It’s not a perfect song – at times I think the music just sort of hangs around rather than bridging the gaps between verses in an exciting way, and it feels like more of an act break than an album ender. Still, I appreciate the unique perspective on an old Bible story, since the lyrics explore it artfully without pandering to the audience.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Dark Am I $1.25
River Rhine $1
Tired Hands $1.25
Take All the Time $2
Watches and Chains $1
Autumn Snow $1
Ben Hardesty: Lead vocals, guitar, drums
Dan Hardesty: Mandolin, banjo, guitar, backing vocals
Annah Hardesty: Bells, percussion, backing vocals
Andrew Benfante: Organ, percussion
Jay Benfante: Drums, percussion
Teresa Totheroh: Violin
Amos Housworth: Cello
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.