You kind of know what to expect from an album by a band called Faun Fables, with a title like Light from a Vaster Dark and a cover like that, don’t you? Even before you press play on your listening device, you’re expecting a steady stream of new agey consciousness set to music, filled with references to the myths and legends of mother earth; right? And that’s sort of what transpires. But the lesson for me has been to give credit where it’s due – Light… is often an intriguing, even compelling listen which shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly as hippy nonsense.
Faun Fables is more than just a band, it’s a ‘songtelling’ project, led by Washington State native Dawn McCarthy, which involves writing and theatre as well as music. The musical side these days is focused on Dawn and her collaborator Nils Frykdahl. This latest album, her fifth, is apparently a meditation on “the cyclical nature of light and darkness as revealed in the seasons of life.” I didn’t quite get that, but maybe I’m not in tune enough with the seasons, or didn’t spend enough time trying to decipher the lyrics.
Musically, it makes for an interesting listen. McCarthy’s take on folk music sounds much more British than American. I know it’s a terrible cliché to mention The Wicker Man when reviewing an album like this, but I don’t have much of a frame of reference for this kind of music, and my mind couldn’t help drifting off to Summerisle. Often the songs sound like they could be centuries old, played the way they always have, until you realise that they’re all McCarthy originals. Overall, there are two things that kept my interest in this record. One is their arrangements, which succeed in sounding both ancient and modern – the form evokes ancient folk tales round innumerable village fires but expertly employs strings, woodwind and harmonica to take them out of a sepia-tinted past. The other is Dawn’s voice which is the driving force for all her songs, forceful but never overpowering, and on occasions the harmonies are to die for.
Over the course of the whole record, I struggled to sustain interest, but in patches, in small doses, like the gorgeous ‘Violet’, there is enough crossover appeal to convince the most hardened modernist. You don’t have to have a love for the countryside or even shop in health food shops to get this record. When they hit the right notes it works perfectly. Elsewhere, it’s pretty much what I expected before I heard a note.