Faun Fables is nom de lettre adopted by Dawn McCarthy, an American songstress and painter inspired by the melodic traditions of the old continent. In most of her endeavors, she is supported by a very unlikely presence of Nils Frykdahl – better known from his spasmodic vocal equilibristic in Idiot Flesh and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.
McCarthy’s and Frykdahl’s graceful songs alternate with adaptations of little known European classics – Scandinavian, Swiss, Polish, French. But for the adventurous (and young) American audience, this is simply Faun Fables, a sensual and pensive update on the 21st century “singer-songwriter” trend. Tasteful, flamelike arrangements and justified eclecticism of the material set these collections apart from the bulk of the output of pop singers whose imagination operates within the restrictions of Celtic mannerism or Appalachian fingerpicking. If there is an objection, it should be addressed at the artists’ exhaustive attitude to these productions – they invariably contain one or more superfluous songs that somewhat spoil the overall cohesion of these records.
Is there a better way to open a nostalgic collection than with the sounds of scampering Italian children? Yes, there is. It is the sound of scampering Italian children interspersed with flashes of flutes and droplets of acoustic guitar. We meet Dawn, an unpolished singer and guitarist who, in this song and many others, will tell us about the relation to her very personal past and (less often) to a future. On this track, Nils Frykdahl is omnipresent – on guitar, on bass and on occasional flutes. It is a swinging, unhurried introduction to the set, but one that does not fully capture the magic of later songs. Yet, the tail-end is so raspy and manic that no one will be deceived into thinking that this is going to be merely a record of a folk poetesse.
With some back-up voice support (Robin Coomer) and a twinkling glockenspiel (Max Baloian) Dawn reproduces here the lyrics apparently transmitted through a medium. We are slowly being immersed into the arcane ambiance of “Family Album”.
A Mother and a Piano
This is another family story, with recurrent nylon guitar from Frykdahl, ascetically affective vocal from Dawn, and a barely audible vibraphone (Phil Williams). It rounds off with an archival piano recording.
Finally Frykdahl puts on his lipstick and shows off how his bass can skid into falsetto. This is entirely his song, one that would fit into Sleepytime repertoire. The invocation to animal roles is appropriately unnerving. Dawn backs-up before howling wolves vanish into the woods.
McCarthy sings a sad text about what could’ve/would’ve/should’ve happened, had the existential discontinuity not terminated the young life’s journey. Marika Hughes’ cello awakens just in time, embroidering the title name and then sawing across the accelerating latter part of the song.
Nop of Time
An uncanny flute doubles on a voice of a 7-year old girl who improvises her own song. The captured sounds of the girl’s surrounding and the purely responsive role of the flute evoke Robert M. Lepage’s clarinet pieces. The passage is strangely joyless.
Another Frykdahl’s song whose guitar recalls the tuning Fred Frith applied to a 6-string in his New York phase. The melodic disunity of this piece borders on incoherence. It is a mere narrative and the melodic line’s only role is to illustrate the morose atmosphere laid out by the story of separation. Both Frykdahl and McCarthy sound remarkably hoarse when singing in unison.
McCarthy’s vintage song is another throwback to her pre-adolescence memories. Her very adult voice deconstructs the uneasy relationship between experience and puberty. In higher registers her voice projects poorly and the transitions crack. Does this matter? This was Dagmar Krause’s “problem”, but she became a legend. Frykdahl lightens the mist with his playful chords coaxed out of his autoharp.
Archival operatic recording of “Holiest Night” opens this track and the sustained organ chords will outstay the invitation, eventually providing undulating fabric for McCarthy. The atmosphere is almost of a sparse gospel, complete with an undisciplined choir in misstep with the lead vocal. The organ goes chunky, but not funky. This piece may have some private value for the artist, but does strike a little like a filler. Its justification probably lies in the title of the record.
Carousel with Madonnas
This is Zygmunt Konieczny’s astounding masterpiece from the early 1960s. Originally Ewa Demarczyk’s most famous anthem, the knock-out staccato is reproduced here perfectly by Brian Schachter on piano. But what is truly stunning is the fact that Miron Bialoszewski’s poem is so ardently expressed by McCarthy’s uncanny, polysyllabic diction. She makes it appear easy, but it is not. Who would have thought that this song would be translated, much less sung so distinctly in another language? The rectilineal form is only slightly softened by Osanna-like flutes and decorative percussion. Nonetheless, it will remain a demonic stop-go waltz, fully dependent on emphatic piano attacks.
After that volcanic paroxysm, comes the anti-climax of Frykdahl’s ballad. This is another very emotional and personal theme. Turgid and apathetic, it does not quite stand up to the standard of the rest.
One of the more original tracks here, “Fear March” is the most percussive and exalted, nearly approaching the heroic lashing by Het in the early 1980s. The Faun herself and Mike Pukish take care of the clubbing. McCarthy makes her proclamations, while Frykdahl assures both the instrumental and vocal bass buttress.
Another classic remake of a classic. Brigitte Fontaine’s voice was also hapless. This song comes from her charming, elated debut (“Est folle”), recorded before she became a jazz chanteuse with Art Ensemble of Chicago. One cannot resist concentrating on the differences between this excellent version and the original. To Faun Fables’ credit, there are some, and they are good: the flayed skin drum (Sheila McCarthy) and very loosely sounding bass weren’t there back in 1969 and nor were some of the vocal arrangements. Towards the end, after a very ‘Grace Slick’ ascension from Dawn, the band shifts into a jamming mode, but cuts off too early. Not on “Family Album”, I suspect… Dommage.
Frykdahl’s initial recitation is met by twiggy flutes before we can recognize a traditional Alpine tune with obligatory yodeling. Dawn’s mastery of this technique is commendable and it comes with dancing spoons and a jaunty guitar. This is an invariably mirthful and optimistic moment – very much unlike the rest of the record.
Old And Light
Another reminiscence from a very personal childhood and one of the better songs penned by Dawn. Here, she operates in the higher range again, punctuated by a drum, and distracted by frail voices from “Picnic at the Hanging Rock”. The Italian kids return. The lesson of nostalgia is over. Time to go home.
This is an unusual statement to make, but one that Dawn McCarthy fully deserves: her recordings have actually been improving with each new issue. After the somewhat hesitant debut came the intriguing sequel and then the third CD described above. But it is “The Transit Rider” that fully deserves the term ‘masterpiece’. Do not miss it.
FAUN FABLES: “Early Song” (1999)
FAUN FABLES: “Mother Twilight” (2000)
FAUN FABLES: “Family Album” (2003)
FAUN FABLES: “The Transit Rider” (2002-2005)