In Brief: These songs were left off of VA last year, but that doesn’t mean they were subpar. These are simply the songs that didn’t fit the theme. They’re no less eclectic, addictive, and in the case of the final track, downright beautiful than the album they were cut from.
The Last Bison‘s VA was one of my favorite records that came out last year. It seemed to up the ante on everything I liked about the lively folk/rock act as they payed tribute to their home state. It turned out that a few more songs had been recorded during those sessions but not released, and I’m happy to have them in the form of Dorado, a 4-song EP that purportedly chronicles key experiences in lead singer Ben Hardesty‘s life that might not relate as directly to that specific location. I just recently found out, when I saw the band live, that his parents had lived as missionaries in Bolivia when he was a kid, and also that he had studied in Europe much later on. These experiences helped to shape the part folk, part classical, largely eclectic and most definitely awesome sound that his band developed over the years. A part of me wouldn’t have minded having any or all of these songs thrown into the VA tracklisting, since they would only serve to increase the value of an already strong album, but as a self-contained listening experience, it’s still a joyous way to spend 15 minutes of my day.
1. Souls in the Sand
Ben’s youth in South America is described in this track, which in true Bison fashion, is all aglow with plunking banjo and chiming glockenspiel. The rhythm of it resembles the easygoing pace of their last album opener “Bad Country”, but there’s something rougher and more playful about this one as it deliberately contrasts the beautiful string melodies of its bridge with the harsh palm-muting of the other stringed instruments as they dive into each chorus. Ben’s lyrics are vivid with images of rain, dirt, and jungle scenery, describing a backwater place that his parents called the mission field, but that to him and his long lost childhood friend Peter (whose company he longs for in the song’s chorus), was a vast playground.
2. This Changes Everything
This one’s more upbeat and straightforward – it could almost pass for a crossover country single due to the prominent banjo picking embedded into its main acoustic riff and the bright fiddling that punctuates the chorus. Some sort of event that caused Ben a lot of upheaval is being revisited here – judging from the lyrics I can actually recall (never an easy task since these guys never seem to put their lyrics online), it was one of those times when life seemed to be crumbling down around him, and yet there’s so much innate joy in the way he sings about it that you can tell it was ultimately for good. It’s interesting to me that this is the fastest track on the EP and yet it’s not as hard-hitting rhythmically as their upbeat stuff usually is at first. The rhythm section seems to be going easy on us, right up until the bridge, when suddenly these huge drum fills come thundering in. Seeing them play this one live – when up to three of the band members were banging on various drums at once – definitely helped me to appreciate that aspect of it.
Given the first track’s origins in South America, the title track would seem to refer to the fabled lost city of El Dorado once rumored to exist on that continent. But “Dorado” is actually the Portuguese word for a specific kind of fish, and it’s also the name of a constellation in the sky. Due to the strong emphasis on seafaring in the song’s lyrics (particularly in its lush bridge when Annah Hardesty is just going nuts on the glockenspiel), I get a mental picture of some captain back in the days when the Americas were still being mapped out, charting a course using only the stars as his guide. (That gives it a sort of kinship with VA‘s “Cypress Queen”, which might explain why the two were played back-to-back at the beginning of the aforementioned live show.) It took me longer to warm up to this one than the other tracks on this EP, mostly because I thought that jamming a Portuguese word into this song’s chorus with no specific explanation of what it meant seemed a little awkward, but it’s just like the random bits of French in Arcade Fire songs – once I vaguely grasp the meaning, I forget that it’s even foreign. Annah’s sweet backing vocals and the swaying rhythm are easily inviting enough to make any bumps in the road forgivable here.
4. You Are the Only One
In a strange twist, the quietest song on the EP ended up being my favorite. It’s a simple recipe, really – a bit of understated but lovely finger-picking on the acoustic guitar, a little bit of violin for mood, and some surprisingly subdued vocals for a man with a voice as robust as Ben’s – he keeps it to nearly a whisper here, but it’s one of the most beautiful things they’ve ever done. (Even on the similarly sparse “Take All the Time”, the ragged edges were on full display.) Backing vocals go a long way to giving this one its special charm, due to how they softly coo in the background behind his unabashedly romantic chorus. The song may as well be intimacy personified, and there’s a lovely crescendo near the end of it where a full string arrangement comes to life, trembling and gushing with raw emotion. It’s a moment that reminds us of Bison’s love for classical music, and while the simplicity of “She Waves at the Gate” was a nice enough closing track on VA, I can’t help but feel a little bit perturbed that they cut this one from the album.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Souls in the Sand $1.75
This Changes Everything $1.50
You Are the Only One $2
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: