Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Bison's folk-pop focuses on unique arrangements

December 24, 2011

Bison‘s orchestral folk-pop takes a bit different tack than The Collection, who I’ve gushed over repeatedly. Bison’s debut album Quill uses the seriousness of Fleet Foxes’ grounded sound as a framework, layering strings, bells and more on top. “Iscariot” and “The Woodcutter’s Son” have a darkly pastoral bent that recalls pre-The King is Dead Decemberists. But it’s not all heavy and bleak; the title track and “Switzerland” show off a deft balance of meaningfulness and instrumental levity. The former is especially buoyed by a perky, rumbling tom roll.

Vocalist Benjamin Hardesty has a less unusual but no less malleable tenor voice than Colin Meloy, and that lends considerable enjoyment to these tunes. While his voice is the focus in several tunes, the instrumental and near-choral arrangements take precedence in others. This focus is rare for folk, no matter how much instrumental virtuosity is praised in the related genre of bluegrass; instead of being about the individual performances (as in that genre), Bison’s folk is very concerned with mood through the writing of parts. There are many intros and outros, setting the stage for tunes: this took some getting used to for me, a fan of immediate folk tunes. It’s not bad, just unusual: this is an asset toward their originality, after I got used to it.

But every folk lover will breathe a sigh of contentment at “Autumn Snow,” which starts out with a gentle, poignant, fingerpicked guitar line before adding vocals and strings. It’s a fantastic tune that shows Hardesty’s vocals in full bloom, and showcases the band’s straight-up songwriting skill.

Bison’s debut Quill establishes the band as one to watch in 2012. Their vision is slightly different than most folk bands, and that results in interesting, fun-to-hear tunes. I’m excited to see what Bison will be able to do with some refining and a few more tunes under the belt.

Cameron Blake's distinctive voice and lyrics set his songwriting apart from the pack

May 15, 2011

If you haven’t read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, you probably shouldn’t start unless you have a lot of time to kill. The series is currently 13 books long, with a fourteenth (and final, thankfully) coming; worse than that, the books range from 600-1000 pages each. The word “timesink” doesn’t do the phenomenon enough justice.

But since I read with music going, it’s given me plenty of time to listen to music. And as enveloping as the tale of three taveren has been, it’s been even better with Cameron Blake‘s musical accompaniment.

Blake’s two most recent albums show an unique songwriter who has the ability to be a staying power in folk music for years to come, based on his lyrical skill and vocals.

Blake’s guitar and piano skills are formidable, but that’s not what makes him so great. His voice is a finely-tuned instrument recalling the best elements of John Darnielle, Colin Meloy and indie hero Ben Gibbard without losing its distinctiveness.

His latest studio album Hide and Go Seek is a low-key but focused affair that features his voice over spare songwriting. Gospel arrangements permeate his best works, as in the standard “I’ll Fly Away” and the excellent, jaunty original “Down to the River.” Both are anchored by piano: the former church-inspired, and the latter almost in an almost honky-tonk style that fits his smooth vocals perfectly.

His lyrics are also a high point, as he shows in “Moonshiner,” the title track and opening track “Every Hundred Miles.” The spacious arrangements give his lyrics room to breathe, and when floated by his excellent vocals, the songs become much more than the sum of their parts.

In that way, Blake functions like a mellower, more user-friendly version of The Mountain Goats; Blake takes on less heady themes in a much more palatable voice, but he gives the same attention to each word that Darnielle does. He tells stories with the same panache and flair, making the quoting of lines relatively unhelpful in showing the reasons why his lyrics are great.

The inflections that Blake employs on his higher vocal register recall those of Gibbard, although Blake’s range is much lower. The pleasing way that Meloy chops some of his vowels finds an analogue in Blake occasionally, as well.

Hide and Go Seek is the rare album that has layers to reward the serious listener. It’s entirely possible to listen and hear some lithe folky pop, but there is so much more here to get, lyrically and musically.

Blake develops another dimension of his sound in Cameron Blake with Strings: Live. Having already used tasteful string arrangements on his latest collection, this is not so much an exploration as an expansion of his sound. It also serves to introduce listeners to work from his previous album En Route. From that disc, “The Love Song Never Died” is the highlight of this album, as the complex song structure lends itself beautifully to the emotionally powerful crescendo that the strings afford it.

The depressing “Hudson Line” is made all the more poignant by the inclusion of strings, as well. Even more impressive than the arrangements is the success with which the recording is pulled off. Rarely do the strings get whiny, and Blake’s voice is steady as a rock. The only misstep is the 8-minute string piece “Hymn,” which is marked as “by Geoff Knorr.” It’s about 5 minutes too long and bears absolutely no connection to the rest of the work. Other than that, the album is a triumph.

Both albums show off Blake’s lyrical power and ease in his own skin. With his distinctive voice, memorable songwriting and that easy showman’s touch, Blake could go very far. I would love to see him support Josh Ritter or another songwriter of that caliber sometime soon. Highly recommended.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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