The Dedication page to Stephanie Bledsoe, inside the lyric book for On The Essence…Artwork by Grace Park
This review will have more of a personal connotation, as this will not only be a description of the contents, but a celebration of a person’s life. Each song of this album can intimately speak to you from your first listen, much like the greetings of the late Stephanie Bledsoe. On the Essence of the Indomitable Spirit, the sophomore release by local Austin band, The Deer- is a dedication to Stephanie. She was an artist, a gypsy, a farmer, and an enchanting spirit. She passed away in August 2013, after suffering an accident on her farm in San Marcos, TX. Even if you were a distant or casual acquaintance, each time you had the chance to see her, she would most likely come up to you first and tell you, “you look beautiful.” Upon her passing, I knew immediately that she would inspire The Deer to write about her legacy in the San Marcos community and the impact she had on her friends and loved ones. Stephanie was an activist for horticulture, and showed her dedication by managing and living off her land, at Thigh High Gardens. She began singing back-up vocals for The Deer’s first album, An Argument for Observation in 2013, but became close friends with Grace Park, the lead singer of the band, before she joined.
Stephanie Bledsoe’s last Facebook status. Artwork by Grace Park
The Deer continue their momentum of rich progressions and intricate details as they did in An Argument for Observation (“As Women Go” and “Army Ants” are my favorites off of that one.) I highly suggest listening to On The Essence… with the lyric book that also contains Grace’s artwork, which can be downloaded with purchase of the album, here: https://issuu.com/thedeermusic/docs/booklet/3?e=0
The album opens with 1. “Take Flight,” where the drums and bass give us a kinetic beat before Grace manifests a melody that is gorgeous, yet restless, as it prepares to fly into the unknown atmosphere. The harmony almost holds her down on the chorus, with its minor scheme, but perhaps it is a fight between moving on and then being tied down to a certain reality. It closes with lovely echoes of the words, “take flight,” with the violin (Dennis Ludiker) and synthesizer (Alan Eckert) carrying the melody to the end. 2. “Careful Whorms, #1 & 2” is a charming and whimsical tune that also treads down a deeper path, perhaps showing the carefree and spiritual relationship with another. It goes from the first section (#1)-having the mantra, “to my surprise” as well as vocal harmonies on a short “OM”-to the next section (#2) where the careful worm embarks on a journey: “I rode a whale/she rode a wind it begins, it begin, it beginned my end…” Grace paints pictures of creatures that slowly crawl or swim and pairs that with the wind and the wheels; things that travel quickly. Toward the end, the two sections collide: “it would take me over, I would follow the water, I’d follow the water, to my surprise…” One of my favorite tracks, 3. “And Like Through The Eye Go I,” just shines with a rich progression, lush timbres in all the instruments, and lyrics that seem to unwind into a beautiful message. It also gives the band an opportunity to jam at the end, to which they did extensively at their Scoot Inn performance on February 27, 2015. 4. “Add Shades of Tiffany” is a dreamy, cutsie canon having images of Tiffany glass, a house, gods, and the sea. I think I heard it for the first time on a rainy day in the car, in which it took me to a serene and still place in my mind. The next two tracks are more of the catchy sing-a-longs, and in the sketchbook they are set against a calming sunset with silhouettes of birds and tree figures. There are little blue faces painted on the tree figures, which reminds me of how Stephanie’s ashes were planted beneath a young oak tree at her memorial. 5. “Rise Up Singing” is like a wooden swing carrying the melody back and forth until Grace jumps off with a powerful cry on “hate to go gentle.” 6. “Farther” is a Texas roots tune with a driving drum beat, perfect vocal harmonies, and a friendly chorus of “ooooooo”s. The third song on the sunset spread in the sketchbook, 7. “Esalen,” does not have such a sunny presence, but more of a pensive quality. The combination of the acoustic guitar melody, the electric guitar drones, and haunting voices create an amazing texture. Again, I applaud the lyrics:
“Wrestled and saved by the wine-colored waves, no amount of danger in my darling, Infinite language in the eyes of cetaceans, safe within the belly of intelligent being, deep in deep end Esalen.”
Wow! Just. Wow. Grace’s seamless voice cascades over colorful words. Even so, every band member of The Deer is so skilled. Jesse Dalton on upright bass goes to town when you see him live. Michael Mcleoud on electric guitar has a keen sense of tone and smooth, melodic ideas. Alan Eckert knows how to work the drum set but also gives us the essence on the percussion instruments. The violinist and/or fiddle players, Dennis Ludiker and Karl Kummerle, set the mood for their respective tracks with either simple accompaniment or using their technical finesse.
Tracks 8, 9, and 10 seem to be a trio of farm songs. 8. “Little Bluestem,” which is the sister farm to Thigh High Gardens, is an instrumental piece with banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and upright bass. Jesse Dalton wrote the next one, 9. “Farm,” and he sings lead vocals as well. “So I’m moving to the farm,” rings true for Grace, as I learned she had moved to Thigh High when I visited the tree last year. This brings me to the next one, 10. “Thigh High Vignette,” a brief accounting of magical events on Stephanie’s land. What a wondrous place it is indeed, with Stephanie’s yurt resting on the back end of the property. I like to group the next two songs together, 11. “Look Alive” and 12. “A Life Electric.” These two seem to directly address Stephanie-“she was strong, she was private, she would probably survive it”-and “now she is reunited with that which the senses can not observe.” Both also allude to the fact that spirits live on, and we can learn from them.We can take control of our passions, throw away our fears, and exude complete confidence every time.
The album closes with 13. “Windinseaandwhine,” a pleasant piece about the layers and textures of sound, again referencing water and the whistling wind. The layers are depicted with violin duets and upright bass, Jesse’s strong voice on the bottom, and Grace’s soft voice on the top-all against a lilt in the drums and tambourine. I think The Deer have a sound that is so beautifully crafted, that it was rightfully so they would celebrate, mourn, and echo the legacy of a brave soul. Thank you, Stephanie.
The late Stephanie Bledsoe. Photo by Amy Sue Berlin
Submitted for the KOOP Radio Music Library