Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Last Bison: VA - Album review by Kirk

Album: VA     (Virginia)
Genre: Indie Jamboree Parlor Jazz  (Describing this stuff is half the trick)
Release: September 2014

VA (Virginia) : I see what you did here.

Quick Spin:  VA,  Depending how you count, this is either The Last Bison's second or fifth recording (two of the five count are EPs, while one of the long plays is a rougher hewn "pre disk" that was massaged into their first major release.  As for me... I count this as three point five. And how sweet it is.  Kinda what you might hear if Vincent Van Gogh could sing while painting the Aurora Borealis over the Chesapeake Bay while riding an antique big-wheeled bike through the parlor of Thoreau..  (If that didn't make any sense, you are just gonna have to listen for yourself.)  

The Last Bison are: Dan, Teresa, Ben, Annah, Amos, and Joel
For the unacquainted, The Last Bison is a multi-instrumentalist troupe (comprised of family members and friends) who together, weave sounds both elegant and jarring, round the continent-of-a-voice that is Ben Hardesty.  This is a band that should be heard live… but if not, this album is like stepping into a sonic sunrise.

It goes without saying that people who make music like to listen to sounds, but then, not all music is about sound in the same way.  When I think of the Last Bison, I think of a band that is simply in the love with the very color of sound, then twining those vibrant hues together in a deep aural tapestry.  

Stylistically, The Last Bison share common elements with the Lumineers, Mumford and sons, and now a little more of Eisley.  That is, they work from a largely acoustic palette and sometimes sing together like pirates,  but have -- with VA -- opened up to the prospect of electricity and Steinways.   Even so, I am worried that those comparisons may not really give you a sense of the vitality, range and imagination of this music.

(hear some TLB here:)   or see and hear here.

As is, I wrote a longer review  of the Last Bison’s earlier albums, Quill and Inheritance, so if you are wholly unacquainted with the band, you can get somesense of them here…But no words of mine are really adequate to describe this band’s unique approach to sound and voice.
And now it is that much more uniquer…

The album VA takes the same recipe that made their earlier works so lively, but now drives the sound in a slightly different direction.    The band has described its earlier music as Fall-Winter, this as Summer-Spring.   (I guess these guys are not from Arkansas where we think of summer as sweating in front of you air conditioner.)

But I get the picture.   More color, more fluid,  more May-poles and picnics…slightly less jagged yet full of texture and turns. The strings paint rivers, and singer Ben Hardesty still manages to throw in a heavy dose of bull elk, But what’s this… Could it be a jazz singer under those Viking horns?  And Oh… who is this female vocalist I hear climbing into more of the mix?  (I simply love the haunting female vocal at the end of “End View.”)  

When I hear the last Bison, I really do hear paintings.   Perhaps it is the shtick… The Last Bison dress like they just came from the Little House... and pull instruments from the great frontier… So naturally,  When I listen to older works I see Moran… Yellowstone… French Fur traders etc.   This time… More like Degas or Van Gough…  Laughing French girls in their bloomers or high hated men riding bicycles and smoking cigars at the circus. The whole is just a little more civilized… But not tame.  Never tame.

for illustration:  Barn Dance by Clyde Singer

Truth is, I am hearing something akin to jazz.  Not the instruments, but the freedom.  Ben’s voice is all over the place: Barking, bending swooning, pulsing between hyper masculine and falsetto.  The strings too dip and swoon.  Chimes, bells, jubilant bombast   And now with added electric bass and piano. Some of the aural-scapes are downright expansive.

It may be harder… if the Last Bison continue in this trajectory to keep their old school look.  Certain songs here call for togas, tights and laurels in the hair.

I haven’t said much yet about the lyrics.  That is because the lyrics are about as impressionistic as the music style.  They kind of make sense when I hear them… then I read them and think… That doesn’t make a lick of sense.   So I am content to hear the words and phrases as snatches that kind of feed into a larger aural dream.   I hear of roots, and tattooed lashes.. deep molasses…eternal light… I hear too of a calling card beyond this world.   “All who are weary, come lay your burdens down.”  (My personal fave.)

It is strange to listen to a music where I am not as aware of specific content… but when I come away, I feel gladdened and refreshed… and alive with life.   Like I have just come from a good swim.  Unburdened.

And then there is that final song… so plaintive so simple and filled with beauty and grace.  The album just ends with a sigh.. and way too soon.

I will be honest, VA took me a few more listens than might be standard to climb onto my Best music in the History of the World – list.   Why?  Because the compositions are just complex enough that it takes a while to cut grooves through this aging grey mass.  I will also agree with another reviewer who found this album only gets better as you get farther in.  I highly suspect that the second track “Every time” with its swelling chorus, will get the airtime (If such a thing exists anymore.) but it is the freeform latter half of VA that just dazzles my sense of music.  How do people even hear this stuff inside their heads?

At this point, I really don’t know where to go.  Other people have written better reviews. (Sample 1:Daily Press)  (Sample 2: PopMatters)  But I am listening and cannot think too much.  I am listening to the song called Sleep, and moonlight and shadows and curtains are pouring thru my soul and my heart is too in love with the sounds to pay much attention to what I write.

Ps.  I almost forget.   As a kind of fringe friend of the Band (Members stayed in my house a couple years back when they hit Wackarusa, an Arkansas based hippy-fest)  and having shared back and forth on Facebook, they asked if I might supply a photographic illustration for the lyric book that goes with this album.   So happens the song “Come What May”  is a song about siblings.   So I furnished a picture of my two neighbor boys, fraternal twins Matthew and Neil.   And this is what I came up with for the book.  (The book I now have, but cannot find on your web page:)

Thank you Bison….. for making my brain such a fun place to live.  You have filled me with good sounds.