The Last Bison – VA: Into the greater unknown, where sea and sky with grace collide.

2014_TheLastBison_VAArtist: The last Bison
Album: VA
Year: 2014
Grade: B+

In Brief: The Last Bison stick to their strengths on their second full-length, reining in a few of the tendencies that may have made Inheritance an acquired taste, but still churning out beautifully orchestrated and energetic “chamber folk” music with thoughtful lyrics and just enough of a rough edge to remind you that it was recorded in a cabin in the marshlands of Virginia.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I experience mild synesthesia when I listen to music. I’ll imagine colors that I think are associated with the mood of the album (perhaps aided by the cover artwork), and I’ll picture places where I have listened to that music, or would like to. Certain records bring to mind the changing of seasons, often because they were released (or at least I first started listening to them) at a certain time of year. In the case of Virginia-based “chamber folk” outfit The Last Bison, this tendency of mine overrides their stated intent – to create a set of songs that reminded listeners of the spring and summer, unlike the more autumnal feel of their past work. I’ve got that totally flipped around in my head, since last year’s Inheritance (and the independent record Quill, from which most of its songs were reworked) were both very much “summer albums” in my mind, and now VA has come along, showing up on the very last day of September, when most folks in the rest of the country were probably already seeing fall colors. I first heard it when the dead heat of summer here in Southern California just wouldn’t seem to die already, but it made me long for the cooler weather and occasional rains of what we call autumn here. It’s very much a “fall record” in my mind, which doesn’t mean it’s not as lively or optimistic as a “summer record”. I just see a lot more reds and oranges and golden browns in my mind’s eye as I play through this one. On the very first day of November, when we finally got our first significant rain of the season and the temperature actually dared to drop below 60 during the daytime, I just had to whip this one out and celebrate that long-awaited arrival.

My weird issues with imagination aside, VA is a lovely record that consolidates a lot of The Last Bison’s strengths as a band – Ben Hardesty‘s rough but confident lead vocals, the sibling harmonies that back him up, the folksy instrumentation (often veering into neo-classical territory) that backs them up, and the spirited, almost tribal-sounding percussion that perks up so many of their songs. It’s interesting that Inheritance was their lone major-label outing and now they’re back to being independent, because considering how much control Hardesty seems to have gained over his harsher vocal instincts here, and how the band has learned to not rely so heavily on meandering song structures, VA feels more like the record that was meant to present them to a wider audience. Don’t take that the wrong way – I’ll always love quirky tracks like “Switzerland” and “Quill”, and how they change up their mood and rhythm seemingly one a dime only to come back around after a bit of exploratory instrumental goodness. But the songs overall are stronger on VA, feeling more like a genuine slice of their backwoods Virginia lives than merely a collection of sermon notes disguised as stories. Not to diss on Inheritance, which I still enjoy a great deal, but I think this record expresses their Christian faith more artfully and tastefully than the more blatant songs on that album did.

Even if you’re not religious and you might still find the references to faith obtrusive or clumsy, there’s a lot to love about the performances on this album from beginning to end. I feel like The Last Bison has escaped from the trap of being easy to label as an alternative to Fleet Foxes or Mumford & Sons, because while these bands all have a similar starting point, I don’t feel like Bison is borrowing tropes from either one of them without understanding how and why they are used. The piecemeal song structures work well for the Foxes; they became a bit gimmicky when Bison did this one too many times. A few upbeat tracks with the acoustic guitars strumming away like they were part of the percussion section may still bring Mumford & Sons to mind, but the instrumentation and the interplay between musicians and vocalists thrills me with much more frequency than it does on either of Mumford’s albums. A few tracks in the back half where the performances are a bit more subtle and have to sneak up on you might be the only thing about VA that snatches an “A” grade out of its grasp. And those aren’t bad or even mediocre songs, really. Just a bit less immediate than a lot of the slam dunks presented earlier on. Past Bison records have had to grow on me, but this one put a smile on my face from day one, and it still does now that those fall colors are finally diminishing into the bare bones of winter. (Or at least, the nondescript and kinda-damp grey blah that we Californians call “winter”.)

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Bad Country
With its easygoing beat, its gentle bells, and its steadily strumming mandolin, I almost feel like VA‘s opening track could be a Sleeping at Last tune. That feeling dissipates soon enough, as the chorus brings in a furiously sawing violin and the homespun sibling harmonies I mentioned earlier. Still, this isn’t as huge of an intro as I might have expected, and it’s actually a bit of a curious choice to lead the album off with, given its chorus of “Feel the wind, feel the wind blowing south again, south again to the bad country.” Hey, aren’t you guys from the South? Is that the smartest way to win over your audience? There’s probably some other meaning that I’m not getting here, beyond just taking self-deprecating swipes at the rugged terrain and miserable weather of one’s homeland. (To be fair, they do describe it as “Where sea and sky with grace collide” in the first verse.) Despite my confusion, it’s a pleasant tune, but it provides only a subtle hint of the talent to be displayed deeper in.
Grade: B

2. Every Time
Awwwwww yeah, here we go! Frenetic mandolin strumming is matched by the rapid pounding of drums in 6/8 time, and it’s instant love. Even though this song’s a bit schizophrenic, switching to 4/4 for a simpler verse structure before coming back to its original rhythm for its motor-mouthed chorus, I love how it makes those twists and turns work in the context of (what I’m hoping will be) a breakthrough single. Just about every instrument gets to shine here, from the Appalachian finger-plucked goodness of the mandolin, guitars, and violin, to the beautiful bells and the boom-boom clack of the drums and the sticks that strike each other almost as much as the actual drums. The song appears to express deep affection for someone who the singer has to keep leaving behind, which I guess is a common sentiment for a touring musician. Whever he looks back, she’s there to greet him, holding the door as wide open as her heart. It’s a happy song with a hint of sadness to it. And the group vocals make it one of the catchiest sing-alongs in recent memory (which helps audience participation if you can’t keep up with the actual lyrics).
Grade: A+

3. Cypress Queen
The travel theme established by the past two songs is kept up as another relentlessly upbeat song kicks in, immediately punctuated by throbbing percussion, almost as if someone was keeping time for a rowing match. I bring up rowing specifically because this song seems to be about an old wooden boat, one that they’re trusting in to keep them safe and warm as they navigate a treacherous river. Trees and plants seem to dominate every aspect of this song as Ben longs for “A sanctuary in the trees that I call home” and “The root from the vine that saved my life”. His brother and sister back him up in full-on wail mode during another highly engaging chorus, and all the way through, this seems like a song that wants to be in the soundtrack to some adventure film set in the days of Pocahontas.
Grade: A

4. The Governor’s Son
Slowing things down only slightly, along comes this curious little mid-tempo waltz that seems to be about a scandalous secret getting out and threatening to ruin a politician’s family. A woman – possibly his mother – seems to be the weak link who might let it slip, though the lyrics hint that she wasn’t quite paying close enough attention to really understand the nature of the secret in the first place. The band’s view is that the kid needs prayer and that we should be thankful the whole thing hasn’t blown up on the evening news yet. As far as small towns with secrets go, this one’s as confusing to me as the Caedmon’s Call song “God’s Hometown” from a few years back (and whatever happened to those guys, anyway? They just sort of fell off the map.) But I enjoy being confused by it. I like how the strings dominate this one, providing the main dramatic push of the song in much the same way that an electric guitar would in a rock ballad.
Grade: B

5. Endview
I’m a sucker for songs about escaping to special, beautiful places. And this majestic, piano-based ballad totally scratches that itch. At just over five minutes, it’s the longest track on the album, but that gives the band space for a solemn piano intro and a lovely, wordless bridge, which brings the violin and Annah Hardesty‘s voice to a dramatic crescendo. The chorus is one of Ben Hardesty’s best, and as much as I’ve given him a hard time for his overzealous vocals in the past, his performance here is stellar, brimming with passion and adoration for that “home by the ocean” he dreams of arriving at when all of his working days are through, “somewhere foreign beyond the traveled road”. They probably could have ended the album with this one, but it works just fine as a beautiful finale for the album’s front half.
Grade: A+

6. Maroon
I love the symmetry of the long fade-out of “Endview” (which I think is played on an accordion?) and the fade-in to this song, which starts the back half of the album off with beautiful organ chords. I think that’s a new instrument for The Last Bison – I don’t recall hearing it in any of their other songs, but it probably just wasn’t given the spotlight like it is here. Another instant winner of a violin riff shows up to bring the song to life, and honestly, I can’t think of many songs that intertwine such diverse instruments as the organ and violin like this one does. It’s very upbeat and poppy, in Bison’s own folksy and highly percussive way of course. I couldn’t tell you what the heck it’s about since lyrics for this album are dang near possible to find online (and I even went so far as to contact the band asking if they had a lyric sheet to go along with my digital purchase of the album – no luck there). The words “Led by eternal light into her arms” certainly stand out in the chorus, but I can’t make out more than a few snippets beyond that. Honestly, this could be a purely instrumental performance and I’d be captivated anyway.
Grade: A

7. By No Means
This song is much less immediate than what we’ve heard so far. It’s more the type of song that starts off intimate, just Ben’s voice and a lone acoustic guitar and a little bit of piano, but that leads to a beautiful climax later. At first I was getting lost in the somewhat arbitrary rhythm of this song’s verse and the fact that I had to turn the volume up to really hear the vocals (which is my one main gripe about most of the back half of this album). I kind of overlooked it and considered it the red-headed stepchild of the album. Now that I’ve gotten more into it, I think it may actually be the emotional centerpiece of the album, since it seems to be a response to someone who is feeling unworthy or unwanted by God. Ben is appealing to God’s loving and nurturing nature as their Creator, asking if the person thinks God would knit together such a unique individual for no reason. The piano playing as this song builds up momentum is beautiful, and the bridge and outro, when the rest of the band finally comes in, are a nice climax, if not as boisterous as some of the other songs on this record. I could use another verse or so to really flesh out the message of the song, but I do enjoy the meditative (and, at the end, celebratory) mood that it sets.
Grade: B

8. Burdens
Guitar and piano are also at the core of this song, along with some lovely plucked strings, but it’s a total 180 from “By No Means” in that it’s the only up-tempo song within this last batch that closes out the album. It’s got the most straightforward lyric by far, with its chorus pretty much quoting the Bible verbatim, “All who are weary, come lay your burdens down”. (The verses seem to have a little more lyrical complexity to them, but again, I’m at a loss due to not having a lyric sheet in front of me.) It’s the sort of thing that might come across as cliched in a vacuum, but as a follow-up to “By No Means”, it feels like a celebration of a deeper truth rediscovered. If you don’t have to earn God’s love, then why are you carrying so much baggage around? The band wrote this one as a simple celebration, and it manages to be a lot of fun without dumbing down their musical style in any way.
Grade: A-

9. Sleep
The last three tracks on the album are much more melancholy than most of what we’ve heard so far. A quit storm of piano and dark, swooping cello bleeds into an ominous, minor key acoustic melody, to which the piano adds a sense of foreboding, as if something awful was bound to arrive the next morning that is keeping Ben tossing and turning at night. Just as easily as Bison can throw a ton of strings and percussion at a song to make it sound all pastoral and pretty, or all upbeat and happy, they can also use them quite effectively to create a sense of restlessness, and while I can’t quite make out the reasons why due to the lyrics being somewhat obscured in the mix, I enjoy the mood being set here. This feels like the beginning of a trilogy of darker songs that finds its resolution at the end of the album.
Grade: B

10. Come What May
This one unfolds similar to “Sleep”, due to how Ben’s vocals are very hushed at first, and then the strings show up a verse or so in to ratchet up the tension. It happens a bit more urgently here, though I’m sure I’m missing some of the song’s intended impact, once again due to not being able to fully make out a lot of the lyrics. The chorus is most clear, as it either assures or warns someone, “Come what may, we will always be the same, you and I.” Judging from the tone of the song, it’s probably more the latter. I can’t say that I’m as drawn to this one as an individual piece, but I do like how it works as a bridge between “Sleep” and the final track, with its strings and piano swirling into a storm of frustration and finally settling into a restrained coda at the end, bleeding directly into…
Grade: B-

11. She Waves at the Gate
Since I’m more a fan of songs that are verbose and take the time to flesh out the situations they describe rather than coming up short on lyrics, it’s easy for me to pick on songs like this that have very few lyrics of their own and that are meant more as a reprise of sentiments expressed earlier on. I have to admit, though, that it’s a pretty neat trick when a band can make me not notice this the first few times around due to the song being so darn lovely. The sweet melody woven throughout this one, along with yet another round of glorious brother-sister background harmonies, makes it very easy to miss the fact that the song’s only lyrics are: “Take me with you/Don’t leave me here/Take me with you/I can’t stay here”. It’s one hell of a heartstring-tugger, because you can just picture that innocent little girl in her front yard, not understanding why her daddy has to go away again. Even though the two songs have nothing in common musically, this one seems to bring “Every Time” full circle, placed at the end here as if it were meant to be a reminder of all the love a weary performer has to come home to at the end of a grueling tour. (Which is not to say that Bison’s tours are all that grueling. They seem to mostly play local dates on the East Coast, which is a shame considering that I live in California and they’re quickly becoming one of my “bucket list” bands to see live. I guess if song sums up the reasons they don’t stray too far from Virginia, I can’t begrudge them that.)
Grade: B+

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Bad Country $1
Every Time $2
Cypress Queen $1.75
The Governor’s Son $1
Endview $2
Maroon $1.75
By No Means $1
Burdens $1.50
Sleep $1
Come What May $.75
She Waves at the Gate $1.25
TOTAL: $15

BAND MEMBERS:
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:
http://open.spotify.com/album/6azoLLvralYBZzrhDI4oE2

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.thelastbison.com
http://www.facebook.com/TheLastBison

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4 thoughts on “The Last Bison – VA: Into the greater unknown, where sea and sky with grace collide.

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