at Schubas, March 5
The fauns in ye olde books of yore--I'm looking at you, Pan and Mr. Tumnus of Narnia--were at once loving and treacherous, typifying more than anything the relationship people once had with nature. When the early horror master Arthur Machen wrote about Pan, the king of all fauns, in the late 1800s, he imagined a vengeful god who's no friend to humans. A faun wasn't something to be tamed--whether he considered you an amusing new playmate or a representative of the evil race that despoils the forest was up to him, not you.
Faun fables aren't nearly so present or scary for us anymore. Relatively few of us grow up in the woods nowadays, so stories about nature have lost their pull. We'd rather think about the stuff of civilization: the intrahuman dramas of politics, dating, family life, the office. For some of us city dwellers, awareness ends where the sidewalk does--in our mental maps, anyplace without buildings or roadways is blank. Our lack of awareness about the world before civilization parallels the fogginess of the memory of our own childhood. It's at the intersection of those two distant memories that Dawn "the Faun" McCarthy and Nils Frykdahl's band, Faun Fables, comes in.
McCarthy grew up in rural eastern Washington. Her official bio says she enjoyed "drawing, dance, and make-believe amongst a large family." In interviews she's mentioned taking lots of walks as a kid through the woods, where she felt the presence of fairies and once saw a ball of light bounce toward her and her friends, then change course and bounce away.
One of few people who have managed to carry that kind of magical thinking into adulthood, McCarthy writes songs that capture the terror and wonder of the natural world. Even when they're doing a cover, she and Frykdahl (who's also the front man of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum) give seemingly innocent themes a hint of the savage. At Schubas, during a March 5 release party for the duo's third CD, Family Album, they opened with a version of the folk song "House Carpenter" that emphasized the returning lover's otherworldly, demonic qualities (he has a cloven hoof, for one thing). In Faun Fables' own music the mingling of species is even more inclusive: Family Album has a Noah's ark of children, wolves, crows, and whales providing backup on songs about childhood, mice, dogs, and dead friends. McCarthy's and Frykdahl's voices are by turns ethereal, playful, feral, and sexy. On the album's climax, "Still Here," the chorus repeats and repeats until it turns into a nearly wordless shriek: "We're here, we're here, we're here, we're still here." It's what dogs might be saying when they bark at us incessantly.
Tightly controlled as the repetition is, they're letting something wild loose through a strictly focused channel, and it sounds both defiant and desperate--as though something will die when the song does, and there's as much ecstasy in that as terror. That feeling also underpins the whimsy of "Mouse Song," a rendition of a Scandinavian folk tune; the screeching (both human and avian) in "Eyes of a Bird"; and the stinging wistfulness of "A Mother and a Piano."
There are other bands that deal in this gothic mix of nature, fear, death, sin, and innocence--the Handsome Family comes to mind. And loads of hippies throughout history have sung about Mother Nature. But I can't think of a single act that's done what Faun Fables does--not just sing about nature but actually sound like nature, in all its howling, beautiful ferocity.
Faun Fables is playing at 8 PM on Saturday, March 13, with Cheer-Accident, the Dresden Dolls, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum at the Bottom Lounge, 3206 N. Wilton, 773-975-0505.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.