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Haunted by Bliss: Local folk act Faun Fables reveals its Family Album

Wednesday, Feb 4 2004
The first time I saw Dawn McCarthy step out onstage, she wore a long, black dress with a dark wig and shawl. She stood tall, with her acoustic guitar pressed high against her chest, plucking the strings as if she would rip them out by their roots and wield them like venomous snakes. It was impossible to determine her age. The straightness of her spine suggested youth, but her ferocious authority suggested lifetimes. Her voice was similarly inscrutable: At once ethereal and careworn, it was like oily smoke from a Spanish dump fire or a dark moss poultice mixed with spring water. That night, her partner, Nils Frykdahl, was dressed like a shrubbery and playing a flute. I hardly noticed. This is notable because Frykdahl is a formidable presence, even overlooking his metal teeth, night-fiend voice, and goatish mien. In fact, rarely in my long tenure of appreciating Frykdahl's work -- from the sonic spectacle that was Idiot Flesh to the artful extravagance of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum -- have I given attention to anyone else when he was in the room, and yet McCarthy dominated my focus. It was not just that during "Live Old" she carefully followed the truth of her own face with an eyebrow pencil, filling in the creases that would one day be etched by time, or that her square-heeled boots tattooed a flamenco rhythm across the stage, or that she interwove dusky yodels, syncopated pants, and bone-crushing howls in a way that would make experimental Eastern European vocalists like Iva Bittová and Ewa Demarczyk take notice; it was the song-telling of Faun Fables. In turn vulnerable as lullabies and strident as battle cries, McCarthy's songs brush the familiar -- family, love, old age, and death -- with mythic, often otherworldly, hues, yet they remain accessible and profoundly memorable. With a concentration on the unearthly, the last Faun Fables album, Mother Twilight, was both bittersweet and titillating, but only three tunes hinted at the dark, brooding quality of McCarthy's live performance and the feral energy generated by her union with Frykdahl. Family Album makes no such omissions. Swinging between the dulcet nostalgia of a child's song and the wild desperation of a pack of wolves (in the liner notes, wolves, schoolchildren, crows, whales, and refrigerators are given equal credit with vibraphone, glockenspiel, cello, and piano), Family Album opens brazenly with the 7-1/2-minute "Eyes of a Bird," an undulating tapestry of nylon-string guitar and lilting, yet treacherous, vocal harmonies that erupt into a cacophony of percussive bellows and atonal screeches. A delicate respite is offered in the form of a poem written by a ghost, followed by a haunting minor-key ode to a mother and a piano, before Frykdahl's subterranean rumble takes center stage with "Lucy Belle," a bedtime song for animals worthy of Odin, followed by "Joshua," a ballad for a dead friend in which McCarthy sounds her most plaintive and approachable. And so it goes, with Frykdahl's and McCarthy's strangely beautiful voices twining in and out of shadows and light, creating harmony, discordance, percussion, rhythm, and melody in a filament of subordinate instruments. While this record more than previous ones is clearly influenced by real-life human family, friends, history, and heroes -- you might not recognize them immediately, but there are two cover songs: the brilliant "Carousel of Madonnas," originally sung by Demarczyk, and Brigitte Fontaine's "Eternal," which Faun Fables has repopularized in local clubs with a snappy dance step -- the duo's world is indubitably, uniquely their own. We are but privileged guests. Other guests tonight include McCarthy's mom and sister, Max Baloian from Nanos Operetta, Robin Croomer from Loop Station, Kirk Lombard from Rube Waddell, Jim and Mickie Frykdahl (Nils' parents), and Cassie Terman and Mike Pukish from Faun Fables' theatrical work Transit Rider. McCarthy also promises to bake heart-shaped cookies to celebrate Faun Fables' CD release on Saturday, Feb. 7, at the Oakland Metro (201 Broadway at Second Street) at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8-10; call (510) 763-1146 or go to

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Silke Tudor


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