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Faun Fables - Family Album

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Artist: Faun Fables

Album: Family Album

Label: Drag City

Review date: Feb. 29, 2004

Faun Fables’ Family Album bears the distinction of being the first album I’ve experienced to credit lyrics to a ghost – and they’re not half bad. More importantly, though, the otherworldly attribution suggests that an artist can function as medium, a sort of receiver and amanuensis for forces beyond him or herself. Dawn McCarthy (a.k.a. Faun Fables) seems to be one such artist; her debut, Mother Twilight, found her channeling the ghosts of psych-folk past, evoking a spookier Vashti Bunyan and the recently-rediscovered Linda Perhacs, and employing sounds and images of a decidedly occult nature. Family Album, her debut on Drag City, retains the overall mystical bent, but seems to draw from a much wider pool of spiritual inspiration. Whereas Mother Twilight was more or less classifiable as folk, Family Album incorporates a palpable prog-rock influence, and prominently features the goth-theatrical songwriting and vocals of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s Nils Frykdahl. Musically speaking, it’s all over the map, but what the album lacks in coherence it makes up for with inspired songwriting and constantly surprising exploration and inventiveness.

The strongest element of Family Album is almost certainly McCarthy’s voice, often reminiscent of Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick, and capable of an impressive range of vocal acrobatics. She is equally compelling whether expressing childlike wonder (“Joshua”), spiritual frenzy (“Higher”), or eccentric sexual playfulness (“Eternal”), and is perhaps as much an actress as a musician. It’s Frykdahl, however, who really stretches the theatrical element of the music to its breaking point. His overwrought baritone lifts “Rising Din” (a reconfiguring of/homage to Jacques Brel’s “My Death”), to a level of absurd melodrama that makes McCarthy’s vocals sound completely natural and effortless in comparison.

"Perhaps the best way to trace any sort of stylistic consistency over the course of the album is to follow its recurring lyrical and aesthetic threads. The most prominent is the aforementioned supernatural/occult aspect: these are songs that delve into dark and mystical territory, whether explicitly (as on “Poem 2,” the track that credits its lyrics to a ghost) or by subtler musical means (as on the album opener, the eerie dirge “Eyes of a Bird”). Almost as central is the album's concern with childhood and the childlike: “Nop of Time,” a winding flute-accompanied melody is written and performed by a seven-year-old, while several other tracks (“A Mother and a Piano,” “Preview”) are addressed to children or written from a child's point of view." While McCarthy establishes something of a consistent personal style (a more eclectic expansion of Mother Twilight’s folk-based sound) on Family Album, she’s equally at home, as noted before, as a sort of medium, bringing together diverse elements not of her own creation and channeling them into something wholly her own. She often derives lyrics from unlikely sources (the aforementioned ghost, a seven-year-old, a grocery store cashier) and in several cases couples her own lyrics with traditional melodies (a hymn on “Higher,” a “traditional Swiss” song on “Mouse Song”). Rounding out the collection are covers of Zygmunita Koniezcyniego’s “Carousel With Madonnas” and Brigitte Fontaine’s “Eternal,” with their lyrics translated into English from Polish and French, respectively.

The incorporation of so many different sources results, as might be expected, in a stylistic potpourri, and a decidedly bizarre one at that. It’s the very multiplicity of influences and sources, however, that make McCarthy’s music so interesting. It may be unlikely that many listeners will find the whole of Family Album to be compelling or enjoyable – it’s simply too diverse and indulgent – but it’s unmistakably the work of inspired and gifted musicians. More than musical eccentrics, McCarthy and Frykdahl are true musical magicians, capable of conjuring up strange and wonderful sounds that certainly deserve to be heard.

By Michael Cramer

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