A twisted Fable: Faun Fables offer ‘song cycles’ in theatrical form

There is an almost infinite supply of songs about trains in this world. It seems that about every blues, folk or country act worth its salt has at least one or two in the repertoire. Within this great tradition of train songs, there is smaller sub-section of songs about ghost trains and trains from heaven or hell. The Transit Rider, the newest release by Faun Fables, an otherworldly folk project always consisting of songwriter and vocalist Dawn McCarthy, who is frequently joined by multi-instrumentalist Nils Frykdahl, is a collection of such songs. Sort of.

As the record begins, there is the sound of a train and then a series of haunting wails and lamenting sighs, and before you even realize it, whether you like it or not, you are on the train. After the brief instrumental, the Transit Rider introduces herself and explains her situation. Though said situation is a little strange, everything seems to be OK, for the most part.

The Transit Rider is a peasant woman who rides the rails because it is the only form of transportation she can afford while on her way to a beautiful green meadow where she is planning to have a picnic. As the next song begins, you’re lulled into a false sense of comfort by some vaguely familiar chords and lyrics, until you realize what the song is: “House Carpenter,” the creepy Anglo-Saxon ballad most recently brought to the public ear by Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series recording. But if the Dylan version is a little unsettling, Faun Fables’ version is just downright terrifying. For one, it’s because McCarthy’s voice has a powerful ability to dig deep into the listener’s soul that Dylan doesn’t exactly have. Additionally, the lyrics in this version vary a bit: In Faun Fables’ rendition, McCarthy lets the listener see the returning lover’s cloven foot.

It was at about this point in the record that I began to wonder what I was doing there.
 As the record (and the train ride) continues, things only get more frightening, as Frykdahl lends his guttural vaudeville villain voice to several of the remaining tracks, singing about such lovely topics as bones bleached as white as the yellow moon and charms for fire and castration protection.

 I won’t give away the ending, although this album gives you the feeling that the story might somehow be different with each listen anyway. Suffice it to say, this is a collection of songs with eerie folk instrumentation and two voices that, when together, sound like a battle between representatives of heaven and hell.

The story is so defined in these tracks because McCarthy wrote the bulk of them after discovering and submerging herself into the world of the New York City subway system. After joining with Frykdahl, the pair formed small vignettes around the songs, which eventually led to a large, 13-person production.

McCarthy said that although the large production was great, she and Frykdahl “knew at some point we wanted to release the material on a record and have a practical touring show.” The record came together with a varied mix of McCarthy- and/or Frykdahl-penned compositions, a few covers and a few strange collaborations (work by McCarthy’s mother and father appears on the record in one form or another).

Faun Fables will bring McCarthy’s practical touring show to life at Nelligan Hall this Sunday with a cast of four. She describes the show as “little acting scenes that set-up the songs. We call it a song cycle instead of a play. There is a story, but it is pretty surreal and kind of fantastical. It’s pretty much about the songs.”

Although the story may be fantastical at times, McCarthy is quick to point out that there are potential messages to be taken from the songs and the story that lurk below the surface.

“There’s kind of a suggestion that the idea of stop not existing is a bit of a commentary on the technical, industrial world, and that this idea of a simple desire to find this picnic stop with green grass and prairies is about finding nature. It’s a little bit of an allegorical tale about that. There’s definitely some social commentary in there.”

Contact the writer at [email protected]