Friday, June 7, 2013

the Last Bison - Inheritance / Quill: Album reviews

Album: Inheritance (March 2013)  
with reflections on Quill, 2011

As a rule, when I  review an album, I don't really know the people I write about. And I don’t really know this next band either… except that they are sitting in my living room with shoes kicked off, playing cards, waiting on word about the fried transmission in their tour band. (6/3/2013)

Genre: Indie “Chamber-Jamboree” hybrid, blending elements of Mountain music and “classical”  -- and some modern rock vocals -- into an original and utterly delicious sonic landscape.  (though some folks think they sound like Mumford and Sons.)

Teresa, Andrew, Ben, Dan, Annah, Amos, Jay (Photo through TLB)

This weekend (June 1-3, 2013) I had occasion to hear the sounds of The Last Bison up close and personal, as their lead singer Ben, dangled “mosh pit style” into the crowd at the Wakarusa Music Festival in Hipppyville, Arkansas.  Make that Mulberry Mountain, Ozark Arkansas.  But before we get to the story of how I steadied Ben's back, I wanna tell you about the music of one of the TOP ten people/bands in the History of the World. (That last designation comes at some cost.  I think I had to scratch Miles Davis from my list to hold it at ten.)  

Quick Spin:  I make no bones about it.  The Last Bison of Chesapeake Virginia, is (are?)  pretty much my new favorite band experience ever.  I can think of individuals, who as writers, musicians or singers, I might hold higher… but when it comes to group dynamics, the Last Bison work together like the body parts of a dancing Fred Astaire.  The hand loves the eye that loves the foot that loves the spleen... or something like that.

When you think of The Last Bison think of time travel.  Or a barn dance.  Mr. 1850 gives Miss 2014 a whirl!  Indeed, the Last Bison harness a Civil-War era vibe, complete with costumes and sundry period instruments.  But not so much the voice.  I think the 19th century would've chased the lead singer out of town.

The Last Bison consists of seven talented instrumentalists, built around the pipes of vocal-behemoth Ben Hardesty,  As a kid Ben crafted music first with family then with  friends.  A couple or years ago the his side-mates coalesced as one.  We have:

Dan Hardesty - rudder/graphic design/mandolin and banjo

Ben Hardesty. Lead vocals and guitar
Dan Hardesty. (Dad), Mandolin, banjo, guitar, harmonies 
Annah Hardesty. (sister) Orchestra bells, percussion, harmonies.
Amos Housewroth - Cello  (and extra special friend to Annah.)
Jay Benfante - Drums, percussion
Andrew Benfante - Pump Organ, percussion
Teresa Totheroh - Violin.

Carla Hardesty (Mom) Tour Manager.

The music of The Last Bison reminds me a little of jazz, not because it sounds like jazz,  but because it represents a marriage of disparate worlds.  (Some folks see Jazz and the union of European classical music and African tribal music, resulting in a truly American child.)  

There are times when over half the members of The Last Bison are given to some form of hitting things.  This is a syncopation paradise.  Even so,  it would be hard to call this music rock.  Then there are those strings, bells and pump-organs, all giving rise to lush beautiful melodies   The Last Bison is, in its soul, a chamber orchestra - plus.  It is rare these days, to find a band that is at ease with beauty.  I mean old fashioned, transcendent beauty.    The admixture between staccato and sway, varies from one tune to another, or even within each tune, but it is not impossible to imagine a Bison song that is at once refined and feisty… sweet and salty,  giddy and sublime... all at once.  



I discovered the Music of The Last Bison (then Bison) through the Internet download site  “Noise Trade.” I had no idea who these Bison folk were, but the cover of their offered album "Quill” – really caught my eye.  Is this a 17-century styled etching of a surgically opened torso?  Further examination showed my eye played a trick.   No torso.  That “rolled back skin" was actually the Arc of the Covenant, while the things I thought to be stomach and liver,  were really etched images of  Moses and King Jehoakim(?) lifted from an old Bible.  Or something like that.

At the time of the their fist offering, The Last Bison were simply Bison.  So too were a couple of other older bands.  Hence, to avoid confusion and any legal snafus, the band became the Last….of the Bison bands.

The first tune out of the chute,  “Switzerland” caught my ear right away… but it was the second that really hooked my intrigue.  Ben is belting “these all look to you for food”…. And I sit up.  I know these lines.  They just happen to be from one of my favorite poems in the world.  Make that an archaic hymn….Psalm 104, penned by King David of the Bible.   A few other songs confirm what I suspect; this band – whose lyrics vibrate with biblical imagery, share my Christian faith.  But for any of you who may find that in itself a turn off – The Last Bison is not in anyway a church band, nor even what might be called a Christian band.  Rather, they are a band comprised of Christians who simply forge good music out of their larger life experience.  And if the crowd at the Wakarusa Music fest was any indication… stoned flower children and dancing stork women like their music too.

As is, I can’t say too much more about their sound, that you cannot hear for yourself by simply getting on You-tube. Ben can sing forever in tender falsetto, gargle like a pirate, or turn a note on a dime.  On the other hand, no You-tube video really captures the sheer energy and effervescent joy of their live performance.  In the studio, the Last Bison are multi-hued and talented. Live, the band is pulsing jubilee ship, ripping apart in the storm.  Or something like that.


As of today, The Last Bison have two major “Long Plays” under their belt, which together, cover about 18 songs. It just so happens that Quill and Inheritance share 2/3s of the same songs… but differently.

Quill: Made as something of a self-cooked work, in look of larger funding. (Download Quill Here) 
Inheritance:  The Bands' first big label break with Republic Records complete with bigger mikes, layers, and promotional budget.

My take.  I love both albums and hear in each, things which make them “One of my favorite albums in the history of the world.”

To be honest, I have a special affinity for Quill (sans larger budget) maybe because I heard it first: Bens' vocals are just a little more chaotic and jagged… some of the instrumentation just a little more jarring…the production a tad harsher and brighter…. And the fact that three of my favorite songs…They are Filled, Iscariot, and The Woodcutters Son, are missing from Inheritance.  That said

Inheritance does something that totally loves my ear.  I am hearing all kinds of notes that I missed in Quill.  I hear depth in  the strings, the separation of the sounds… Like Wow.  The production people on this record did a phenomenal job of pulling apart the instrumental voices of a seven member band, and putting them back together in a way that you can hear each player… and the percussion sounds oh so live and fierce.  The bass scoops and holds.  The sonic landscape just is richer, bodied, and warm.  Everything I hear here, sounds big… and fitting for what SHOULD be the band everyone is talking about.   Move over Cold Play (except that I guess Cold Play is probably yesterday’s news.  You must remember, I am an old man.

You can find many dozens of TLB performances on You Tube.  Here are a few of my recommendations.

Sandstone: The very soothing closing track from Inheritance. (there is irony here, as the song is anchored in the very violent story of Samson.)

They are Filled: pretty rough sound, but this really shows of the energy of a house show.

Switzerland:  With nice story video.

An as of yet "unrecorded" cover of M83's Midnight City. (Quite a different sound... for both bands.)

And finally, a "Mini Indie film" featuring instrumental renditions of songs found on Inheritance.  Watch the whole thing.

All in all, the combination of novel instrumentation, cadence, melody, sweetness, percussion, dissonance and harmony, even a touch of vocal ugliness… (make that, gnarliness)… just make The Last Bison one of the most exquisite listens anywhere.  In any era.



If there is any area where the Bison folk have me sometimes scratching my head, it is the lyrics.  Then I figured it out.  This is not Folk, where the singer tells stories full form.  Nor is this "sit down poetry” in the sense that you can just sit down and read the lyrics, as is.  (a good many lyrics just sound hokey removed from the music.)  What we have instead, are “expressions” – bits and snatches of story line,  bold brush stokes and partial forms, that take on a life “in” the music.  Some of the songs make total sense as is, others just kind of kick about with words or phrases that  forge an impression. Take for example: "Switzerland" the bands' most recognized tune to date.

We tried to sleep up in the banks of snow
But soon discovered it was far too cold
So we then retreated into town
To find a place where there was level ground

Oh, Call home
Oh. oh 

SwitzerlandYou’ve taken way my breath now once again
You’ve left me with a sense of compassion
For the ones who can't pick them selves up off the ground

Oh Switzerland
I never thought I’d have you as a friend
I’m praying it was not at all pretend
I need you now
To help pick me up from off the ground

Our drinks were hardly worth the price we paid
But we thanked God for them anyway
 andWith five minutes left 
we broke our backs
To spend more money than either of us had

Sister Annah Hardesty,  on Orchestra bells, and vocals.
Out of the gate, I really like the concrete detail in several of these lines, a real story line in brew-- But what we have are some missing parts.  When talking to Ben he filled in the larger story.  Ben was in Switzerland as part of an extended backpacking tour out of college (or with his Bible college, can’t remember now.)  While there they found themselves in a ski resort town, late and without a place to stay.  They attempted the survivalist thing of getting in the snow banks, then opted for sleeping behind a store, covering themselves with cardboard and crates to weather the night.  They didn't sleep very well, and now, having done one night of the homeless thing, more readily identify with those who sleep outside as a way of life.  So one night in Switzerland is filled both with the beauty of the place, and a deep life lesson about the needy in our midst.

In reading and listening to other TLB songs, I find the same kind of mix – little bits of personal history, chopped and mixed with allegory or emotive outbursts.   I see what I think are songs related to Ben and his sometimes long distant relationship with the girlfriend in his life(?)  Then there are phrases that lift out of the Bible  -- like “Dark am I, and lovely” from the Song of Songs.   All and all, these are songs that take on a life within the music where the total song carves an emotional landscape that is bigger than just the words or the tune.

Sometimes Ben really does kind of look like a Buffalo...

Everyone for whom I have played the music of The Last Bison is deeply impressed.  “These guys are good, I mean really good.”  My sense.  This is, or should be the next “thing to happen.”  I would like to see the whole planet loving their music. And I think the band would like to see such too.   My prayer for The Last Bison is that they take whatever success they find (or maybe even miss) and fold it into their larger story line of a life lived before God with great delight… even as they enjoy his gifts (music) and relish the gift they have in each other – and all that, held together in Him who gives us life, breath, and everything we need. 

I also pray he keep them from idols.

(Continued next post with: How I became an Honorary Bison

No comments:

Post a Comment