VA effectively charts a bold new course for the band that doesn't need to rely on folk rockers du jour.
Virginia's the Last Bison has had its share of ups and downs. Their first album, Quill, was released in 2011 independently, but then they found themselves on Universal Republic for the follow-up, 2013's Inheritance. However, now they're back in the minor leagues as VA, which stands for Virginia and is pronounced as such, is being released without major label support. That's surprising in a sense, because if there was any band with a shred of commerciality, the Last Bison would be it. They've been compared to Mumford and Sons as well as Fleet Foxes, and you hear those touchstones in the music of the latest album.
However, what's intriguing is that, after the first clutch of songs, the Last Bison appear to be moving into foreign territory untethered to their obvious influences. That's not to say that VA is wholly satisfying: it certainly can be cloying at times. But the deeper you get into the album, the more interesting it gets. And, what's more, repeated listens smooth out the warts of the opening trio of songs, which is where the Last Bison fly their Mumford flag most assuredly. It is as though the outfit wanted to get that upfront for fans of their sound, and then move out of the way to follow their own path in the woods. The end sound is something jubilant and sometimes exciting, even. When they're not being overly earnest, that is.
In addition to the collection of traditional instruments, the Last Bison have added electric bass and keyboards to toughen things up. That's certainly most prominent on opening track "Bad Country", which augments its strummy folk sound with toy keys. "So it begins," muses vocalist Ben Hardesty on the cut, and the song itself is a statement about recording in a cabin on the cusp of the Great Dismal Swamp near the band's home in Chesapeake, Virginia. "I feel the wind, I feel the wind, it's blowing south again, south again, to the bad country." Clearly, with the reference to the South, the band feels conversely liberated and the shackles (whether of a major label recording contract or what have you) have been released, but by calling their home turf the "bad country", one has to wonder if they really relish the thought of being independent again.
"Every Time", which follows, is a bit flat in the sense that it could be a Mumford song, complete with its "woh-oh" background chorus. It's anthemic to be sure, but it doesn't make you forget that its influence is worn on its sleeve. It isn’t until you get to about “Endview”, five songs in, that things really get hopping, at least in terms of forging ahead with a signature style. It's a ballad, and it really sticks. It's quiet, lush, haunting – all of those words that get bandied about in terms of describing something of this nature – but it shows a sense of maturity. "Someplace far and beyond the traveled road," sings Hardesty in the refrain, and that's where the band seems to be now headed.
"Maroon", with its organ, is another knock-out. Once the violins come careening in, the song becomes scrumptious. While I wouldn't say that it's original – use of mandolin and such makes this a stab at natural Americana – it does show growth and, beyond that, it's dang catchy in all of its melodrama. And, generally speaking, the album grows progressively quieter and quieter as it progresses, which, again, really makes you wonder if the group simply wanted to get the bangers out of the way as quickly as possible so they could get you to the good stuff. "By No Means" is yet another soaring ballad, complete with a pretty cello and piano, but, for a few seconds, the song is just stripped down to Hardesty's voice and an acoustic guitar. It's an assured moment, before the song builds and builds from there, swelling like an ocean wave. "Burdens" is another moment of the divine, with its strings section swirling around itself, as the song itself feels triumphant. This may seem like an obvious and moot point, but it would appear that the time spent holed up in that isolated cabin seems to have done the band some good, allowing it to become introspective. "Sleep" is fascinating in that it is just voice, acoustic guitar and piano – with just a touch of cello – during its verses. Everything is stripped back and laid bare on the latter half of the album.
There are moments sprinkled throughout VA that remind me of U2 in its prime. Not in the playing of the instruments, really, but in how the band is able to create something high-ceilinged and glorious with its brand of songwriting. And, definitely, the band wants fans to come along the new trail that they're ambling down: "Take me with you, I can't stay here," are the very last lines of the record. While the disc isn't perfection, due in large part to the early part of the record which still sees the Last Bison flying its influences a little too broadly, it does move into exciting territory the quieter it gets, the farther it gets.
Some might suppose how the next album from the Last Bison will sound like – presuming that this isn't something of a last hurrah for a band that is probably licking its wounds after being in the majors – but VA effectively charts a bold new course for the band that doesn't need to rely on folk rockers du jour. This is a record that invites you to spend some time with it, to curl up with it, like a good book and a glass of wine. One is hopeful that The Last Bison knew just which road they're headed down now, and can create something honest and true and doesn't look to forbearers. VA is impressive, and no more so than when it proposes its mission in the quietest manner possible.