Faun Fables Acts Out Music
Faun Fables played to a small portion of the Oberlin population this past Monday, a select group privy to this semester’s most beguiling concert. The band, based in Oakland, Calif., specializes in an indescribable mix of ethereal, folk-rock opera sounds. Although the set began with an audience of about ten early in the evening, as the concert continued, more audience members slowly trickled in before the finale at midnight.
The group has a sound that is hard to describe — while made-up genres like “immigrant-goth” or “tenement-core” seem to apply, the term “glam rock” also fits. Because the group is so original, their style cannot be pigeonholed. Listeners are forced to meld different styles together, and to create new ones to call this musical phenomenon.
The current act includes songwriter, vocalists and multi-instrumentalist Dawn McCarthy. Her voice is haunting, like a huskier Chan Marshall of Cat Power, with the vocal range of the Little Mermaid, Bjork or even German pop star Nena, of “99 Luftballons” fame. Bizarre, but true. Nils Frykdahl is responsible for most of the instrumentation (guitar, flute) and vocals. He is also an integral part of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.
Faun Fables’ new album, The Transit Rider, spurred a show which started out as a 12-person ensemble that performed in 2004 as a theater act in San Francisco. The band began its current tour in April to support the release of this album. Starting with only four, the ensemble consisted of McCarthy and Frykdahl, with Fuzzy Cousins playing back-up drums, keyboards, and acting supporting roles in the cast.
Transit Rider is a conceptual piece about a traveling woman stuck on a mysterious train in an uncertain future. Voices come out of the train and speak to her, but the passengers she encounters claim that they don’t hear them. The train they see is different from what she describes. She doesn’t know which stop is hers, only that she would eventually like to have a picnic. In this world, though, “picnics have fallen out of favor with society.” It starts to seem like the conductor will never let her off the train.
Faun Fables performed in costumes that seemed more fitting for extras in the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times. McCarthy plays the woman, Frykdahl acts as the mysterious train conductor, and Matt and Jenya of Fuzzy Cousins play fellow passengers. It had a kind of depression-era theme, while also being absorbed in ideas of future and apocalypse.
The highlight of the show came with the characters’ passage into the wilderness. The post-apocalyptic atmosphere of their reality became more tangible, the Rider becomes more afraid to leave the train, making the vocals and the video projections above the stage, more intense. The wilderness was a wasteland covered in hazardous materials, and the poignancy of this discovery was palpable.
The show was incredibly absorbing. The performers were wholly committed to the work they presented, and not many bands can do that while they make obscure gothic-folk performance art. There are not as many layers of complexity in their music as there are in that of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, probably because SGM has eight members on a variety of homemade instruments and Faun Fables has four on traditional instruments.
But what Fables lacks in complexity, they make up for in texture, as each member experiments with their own instrument to the fullest. Audiences are attracted to both these bands because the nature of their shows is based on the individual performers and their ability to capture the audience while remaining a harmonious part of a collective sound.
On top of that, McCarthy has one of the most enchanting voices I have heard in a live performance and Frykdahl, because of the pure strength of his voice, could easily have a career on Broadway. Both are accomplished in their approach and technique.
That being said, Faun Fables might not be everyone’s thing. As much as I enjoyed their performance, it is pretty goth, and that’s not always a compliment.
Besides, a lot of people do not like performance art. It is possible that the average Oberlin student might not be interested in the show, and if the music that accompanied the show hadn’t surpassed my expectations I might have found myself in the skeptic’s seat. What made me appreciate it was the fact that the group does not play music that comes from a pair of tight jeans and a ludicrous haircut and has no need to appeal to a mass audience. Instead, the music is born from art and personal vision — it embraces both the grotesque and the sublime.
For every Faun Fables there are a hundred versions of The Killers, and I wish it were the other way around. If you can appreciate the pure quality of their music, then you will enjoy their show.
The corresponding CD, however, fails to capture the performance. Do CDs of rock operas ever capture the thrill of a live show? Perhaps I have been spoiled because I saw the performance before listening to the full-length CD. Everything on there is the same, without dialogue, but it does not feel as powerful.
If you think you might like the way this band sounds, you should go see them when they come to your town. They have a pretty extensive U.S. tour planned for this summer, which you can find on their label’s website, www.dragcity.com.
And please, make sure you arrive on time.