In an age where it seems like many bands are content to arrange disparate influences, tack on anachronistic iconography, and douse the whole mess in reverb, composition-by-triangulation is the name of the game. In the face of such obscurism, Faun Fables — though drawing from a dizzying variety of folk traditions, from Merlin to Laura Ingalls Wilder — compile a satisfyingly coherent package of mystical, neo-pagan bullshit. More moody and free-form than Dawn McCarthy and friends’ previous efforts, Light of a Vaster Dark marks their first release since 2006’s The Transit Rider.
Cyclicality is the main focus of the album, which begins with the lines, “Daylight had lessened and lessened some more/ Till dark became our country and sunset the door.” These words are reprised on the penultimate track, “Hibernation Tales,” fleshed out at a faster tempo. They then add, “And we carved the hours deep and wide/ Only dreaming of the outside,” before dissolving into a deconstructed outro of trilled autoharp, violin, and flutes called “light,” thus realizing the dramatic conceit of the album title: a retreat into dreams. “O Mary” even brings the classic Christmas story into the overall light/dark dynamic, as “A virgin in a cave in the dark/ Bearing a solar king.”
“Housekeeper” is conceived as a banal ode to domesticity — not a topic most people get excited about — with the liner notes referencing Willa Cather’s My Antonia. The song’s dull content is saved by McCarthy’s banshee-like vocal delivery, badass sawing fiddle part, and melodically spry bassline provided by her partner Nils Frykdahl, also of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. “It’s the kind of magic made alone/ When you’re wrestling with the shadow of a home/ Housekeeper, housekeeper/ You make the home a hearth,” goes the last verse, with a thwarted rhyme driving the song’s message home. “Sweeping Spell” reprises the theme of housework, glorifying the simplicity of sweeping as, um, “A melody of bristling.”
“Violet” is one of the best tracks on the album, featuring Dawn McCarthy trading verses with an alternately doleful and biting electric harmonica, courtesy of Mark Stikman (who also contributes parts on “Parade” playing the “bio-pneumatic-mouth-organ”; if you’re confused, it sounds pretty much like a harmonica). Jangling percussion drives the faster verses forward, with Frykdahl adding touches of furious 12-string between beats.
A we-will-rock-you drum part is paired with a strident, witchy chorus on “Hear the Grinder Creak,” a track that skirts comfortable tonalities, coming to rest only occasionally atop chords underpinned by a clarinet splatting at the bottom of its range. That sort of touch exemplifies the delightful variety of timbres on this album, which makes for engaging listening. But whenever a Shakuhachi flute is found alongside a bodhran, an autoharp, and the aforementioned future-harmonica, an album risks feeling a bit like the folk-instrument version of a wine tasting.
“A parade made the people in this big town/ Look each other in the eye and wave,” goes “Parade,” one of the more traditionally structured tracks on the album, but the narrator listens to the proceedings as “a restless roar on the other side of my door.” It’s imagery that evokes a modern disconnection, a startling humanity emerging momentarily from an otherwise desolate town. For an album that finds meaning in the vicissitudes of daily life, the heartbreaking uncertainty of the line “O my fear/ I just don’t know who lives here” stands in a different era from the anachronistic bells, bodhrans, and brooms found elsewhere.
And maybe that speaks to the problem with trying to make anything resembling folk music nowadays. There isn’t really any definable cultural unit through which one can claim an already dubious folk authenticity. Composers are limited to the flotsam and jetsam of cultural artifacts that wash up secondhand in record stores, online, or in pawn shops: on the outside, looking in at long-debased traditions. The pioneering hardiness Faun Fables capably venerates is now the domain of reenactors. The intrepid few who still seek frontiers have only the vaster dark of dreams to explore.