Faun Fables consist of a duo: singer-songwriter Dawn McCarthy and Nils Frykdahl (also a member of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum). Dawn writes the bulk of the songs, sings most leads in a dark, hoarse, grainy, wailing, and extremely powerful alto, and plays acoustic guitar. Nils plays acoustic as well, handling most of the lead guitar parts, and usually sings backup; he also plays flute (quite well, it was his main instrument in college and he may play it better than he plays guitar) and overdubbed bass (on which he sounds a lot like SGM’s Dan Rathbun). Their material ranges from traditional hymn and folk tunes through Dawn's eerie Celtic-tinged folk-rock to some very unusual covers and several numbers written by Nils that I can only describe as acoustic Sleepytime. In general, though, Faun Fables don’t really sound much like anyone else. Comus might come nearest, but you’d have to imagine a Comus with Roger Wootton's garbled, quavering, goat-like bleat replaced by an equally unusual but far more listenable female voice, less disturbing but still strange and otherworldly lyrics, and more cohesive songwriting, in which each song sounds like a single composition rather than bits stuck together. Other parallels might appear in Linda Perhacs's Parallelograms, the Roche Sisters, and more remotely, the Art Bears.
As the name suggests, Family Album has a general theme of families, whole and broken: from the life together Dawn and Nils have made for themselves, to their relationships with their own kin, to others' thoughts upon and experiences of love and family, to more abstract musings concerning the subject. Besides Dawn’s material, it includes two covers, a pair of adapted traditional tunes, and three songs Nils wrote. Some of the more striking pieces include:
- Eyes of a Bird, in which Dawn follows a pair of runaway street kids who have learned to not get their hopes up, to trust no one, to never reveal vulnerability, and to make a show of indifference, as they fearfully, cautiously start to become a couple.
- Joshua: Dawn wrote music to a friend’s memorial poem for her son, and that friend’s unpolished lyric makes her heartbreak feel all the greater, as does the sobbing obbligato from Marika Hughes’s cello.
- Nop of Time. Improvised and sung by a seven-year-old girl, accompanied only by Nils’s flute doubling the vocal melody, this sounds truly bizarre - like bits and pieces of songs from a dozen childrens’ albums strung together, meandering from key to key, and never repeating.
- Fear March, a tune of Dawn’s, resembles a feminist chant – perhaps for a “Take Back the Night” demonstration. However, it’s a little hard to imagine an unrehearsed streetful of women immediately nailing its unexpected accents and pauses.
- Carousel with Madonnas, a 1963 Polish art-song composed by Zygmunta Koniezcyniego. A fast waltz with a driving full-band arrangement, it has a key structure that alternates boiling within flamenco-like modes and exploding out of them. Even in translation, I have no idea of what the lyrics mean. Statues of the Virgin Mary slipping out of their churches to go on holiday together? Perhaps.
All in all, Dawn wrote about half of Family Album’s fifteen songs; she also adapted the traditional tunes and covers. Her distinctive, tightly focused style centers on her amazing voice: She writes world-class lyrics and sings them with devastating power; her music serves to bring those lyrics to life and as a vehicle to allow virtuoso vocal performances, not as an end in itself. It tends toward loose, rhapsodic melodies rather than tightly composed tunes, with long stretches of that wonderful voice soaring above one- or two-chord vamps. A number of her earlier songs consisted of only that. However, with this album she seems to have picked up some of Nils’s more elaborate musical vocabulary – many of her newer songs break up those vamps with bridges, move on to other vamps, or employ some fairly sophisticated modal colors. Their subtle, unusually-voiced arrangements, for anything from two guitars to a full band, also show some of his influence. Even so, they continue to sound as if they were pouring from her fully-formed on the spot, and I could not imagine anyone else singing them or even trying to.
As mentioned earlier, Nils wrote three of the tunes as well. His musical focus, tight sense of form, advanced harmonic palette, and schooled compositional chops provide a striking contrast to Dawn’s rawer, simpler, highly instinctive, harmonically less defined, and sometimes almost amorphous approach. Coming after hers, his music has the impact of turning the corner at the end of a gallery of Impressionist paintings and confronting a Photorealist work head on. For the Sleepytime fan, Faun Fables offers an interesting window into that band’s creative process and evolution, for Dawn’s influence has a great deal to do with the less frenetic, more directly emotional turn Nils’s music took after Idiot Flesh, and his contributions to Family Album also show what his songs might sound like BEFORE he brings them in to SGM for everyone to rewrite and collaborate upon. Lucy Belle and Still Here resemble shortened, simplified, mostly-acoustic treatments of Sleepytime material, and both have lyrical ties to his work with that band: Lucy Belle seems to connect with SGM’s “Adversary” mythology, while Still Here provides a prequel to the Museum’s 1997. His third tune, Rising Din, parodies Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie and hits every last melodramatic cue dead on target.
Finally, although this review makes a try at it, attempts to describe Faun Fables fail even more than such attempts usually do. Comparisons, technical descriptions, or flowery literary conceits all come up short. Mere words cannot convey the feral, uncanny strangeness of this music, how it echoes of something much older than Civilization, or perhaps even older than Mankind. Like Comus’s First Utterance, it might have sprung from the Fair Folk of the Hills rather than anyone human. But whereas First Utterance seethes with the Unseelie* Court’s cold-blooded malevolence, Family Album’s eerie, preternatural beauty also resounds with the Seelie* Court’s empathy for the hearts of mortals.
- John Hagelbarger
*Celtic mythology divides the Sidhe (or Fair Folk) into two warring camps ruled by rival houses: The evil, inimical, terrifying Unseelie Court, who have only contempt and hatred for humanity, and the uncanny but neutral Seelie Court. While the Seelie Court usually keep to themselves and pursue their own concerns, they sometimes make common cause with mortals against the Unseelie, and may befriend individual people, usually artists.
Dawn McCarthy – vocals, acoustic guitar, percussion.
Nils Frykdahl – vocals, acoustic guitar, flutes, bass, percussion, sax, odds and ends.
Plus, on various tracks:
Sheila McCarthy – drums
Mike Pukish – drums
Michelina Tyrie – organ, backing vocals
Brian Schachter – piano
Marika Hughes – cello
Phil Williams – vibes
Max Baloian – glockenspiel
Brian McCarthy, Cassie Rorie, Robin Coomer, Noe Venable – backing vocals