Back at the start of 2004, British music writers and associated blaggards would have received a package containing two CDs – released within a few weeks of each other, both by Californian artists making their debuts for the same label after a couple of under-the-radar DIY discs, and both driven by idiosyncratic female voices over ambitious readings of folk-rock. They were both great and, it seemed at the time, a world away from anything likely to be absorbed into the musical mainstream, but for Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender was a springboard to precisely that. For Dawn McCarthy, recording as Faun Fables, Family Album was not. Six years hence, it may even be that the income generated for Drag City by Newsom’s records allows the label to continue to issue relatively minor concerns such as Light Of A Vaster Dark, the fifth Faun Fables album in total. However, the fact that McCarthy has remained in music’s subterrane says nothing of the ambition and grandeur which this album has in abundance.
Light… retains many of the Faun Fables hallmarks established on Family Album: a dizzying array of instruments are credited, and the folk traditions referenced hail from several nations (France and Hungary as well as the US and UK, for starters). However, the end result is considerably more cohesive, and where Nils Frykdahl often seemed to be merely importing the aesthetic of his other band, neo-prog surrealists Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, at this point, the only real connection between the two outfits is a shared interest in corrupting Americana. Although its gestation wasn’t quite as grand as the last FF opus, 2006’s The Transit Rider – which was inspired by a play created by and featuring McCarthy – Light… is also a concept album of sorts: moving from ‘Into: Darkness’ to ‘Outro: Light’ with songs’ tableaux in between governed by the weather and the time of year. “In the burnt sun, the red grasses grow,” begins ‘Violet’, a near-erotic paean to “two intoxicating, violet-eyed women of the blazing pioneer lands”. ‘Hibernation Tales’, the album’s last full song, recalls, “It began with the cold, how it crept up our sleeves / Covering the floor, making our blankets freeze / Daylight had lessened and lessened some more / ‘Til dark became our country, sunset the door.”
For a lyricist whose lines have often tended towards the fantastical, McCarthy is often apt to find beauty in the (relatively) mundane. ‘Parade’, a harmonica-honking clash of East Village folk and country-rock which is probably the most quote-unquote conventional moment on the album, relates how McCarthy “found a parade today” and how it reignites communal spirit in a despondent town. It may be trite, true or both, but her litany of characters who, she recalls, “looked me in the eye” seem very real when her powerful voice is relating matters. ‘Housekeeper’, likewise, celebrates the downtrodden employee of its title in the fashion of post-Fairport electric folk: “Working hard, no praises said / Scrubbing the dirt and making the beds.”
You’d be doing some hefty projecting if you were to suggest Light Of A Vaster Dark was any kind of calculated step towards, say, college radio play, or a tokenistic ‘kooky indie-folk lady’ status. The two songs cited in the previous paragraph don’t do anything likely to scare fans of, oh let’s say Laura Marling – but this doesn’t account for a Comus-meets-Black Widow offering like ‘Sweeping Spell’, based around myriad percussion (a flour sifter is cited) and coven-ready chanted vocals. To this end, perhaps the highest compliment you can pay the latest Faun Fables album is that neither its ‘tuneful’ or ‘creepy’ parts sound more naturally achieved than the other, and that they sound like they’ve sprung from the well of a woman with a unique creative – and literal – voice.
8Noel Gardner's Score