A couple of weeks ago, I spent a day trying to sort out the CDs at home; attempting to make some space on the shelves, really, for the piles of stuff that had accumulated over the last year or so. As I was weeding out a lot of mediocre post-rock from the late ‘90s, I kept coming across good things I hadn’t played in years, like Judy Henske & Jerry Yester’s “Farewell Aldebaran”.
Playing it, it struck me of how much it shared with a new record I’ve been playing a fair bit over the past month, “Light Of A Vaster Dark” by Faun Fables. I’m conscious of not having paid enough attention to Dawn McCarthy’s band over the years; stemming, perhaps, from receiving my first FF record in the same envelope as Joanna Newsom’s “Milk-Eyed Mender”.
Both records had something nebulously medieval about them, though McCarthy’s voice couldn’t be much more different from that of Newsom, especially at that point in her career. Not unlike Henske, McCarthy’s voice is bold and stentorian, capable of fearsome power. She’s been one of Will Oldham’s duetting partners, with a similar complimentary heft to the likes of Ashley Webber and Lavinia Blackwall.
Truth is, though, I’ve liked all the subsequent Faun Fables albums, without spending a great deal of time with them.I don’t really feel qualified, as a result, to make pronouncements about whether “Light Of A Vaster Dark” is notably better than them. But for whatever reason, it’s the one I’ve played most by far.
Thanks to McCarthy’s solemn, incantatory style, and the Arthurian drapes which somehow accumulate around them, it’s easy to talk about Faun Fables in terms of a perceived ‘witchiness’, though listening a bit more closely to “Light Of A Vaster Dark” that seems unfairly reductive. Judging by the footnotes and allusions which accompany the lyrics, it’s a scholarly endeavour; rich with poetry and western lore – Willa Cather gets a couple of references, for a start.
Consequently, “On The Open Plains” and “Parade” seem invigorated with a kind of frontier spirit, which oddly fits in with the more baroque, Anglo-folkish vibes that generally predominate. McCarthy’s mighty voice often sits among clean, layered vocal arrangements, and above chamber-like string arrangements. Plenty of artists are currently working in this area; I listened to a pretty disappointing example, from Fern Knight, just yesterday afternoon. Perhaps the closest contemporary might be Nina Nastasia (circa “The Blackened Air”, maybe), though Faun Fables’ music feels less introverted, more theatrical.
Which is where, I guess, the Judy Henske comparison makes most sense, on songs like “O Mary” especially. It’s a strong and consistent album, very atmospheric and crafted as a whole. I do, though, keep coming back to two songs placed near the start, “Light Of A Vaster Dark” itself and “Housekeeper”, which calls to mind a mix of Steeleye Span (McCarthy forthrightly leading the massed voices , like Maddy Prior) and the more arcane Comus.
Anyhow, I’ve got the other Faun Fables albums at home: if anyone knows them all better than I do, maybe they could chime in and explain how this one compares?