A song cycle inspired by the sights and sounds of the New York subway system, Faun Fables’ latest album has already spent a few years on the stage. As with all musical theatre, when you divorce the music from the production there’s often the feeling that you’re missing something crucial somewhere along the way. That said, just listening to The Transit Rider provides ample motivation to catch Faun Fables on stage, as soon as the chance arises, and provides a magical experience in itself.
The Transit Rider largely revolves around Dawn McCarthy’s fantastically eerie vocals and the guitar-work of Nils Frykdhal, also guitarist and flautist for those other great theatrical psych-prog-folksters Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Hugely atmospheric throughout, the tracks are bookended by waves of ambient sound, trains rumbling, wind whispering, crowds bustling in the distance. During what seems like the first act (the first five pieces) there is even an overarching feeling of listening to music within the mysterious and cavernous acoustics of an underground station.
It’s often electrifying stuff, and the whole album seems to build and fall on a controlled but determined parabolic trajectory. From Transit Theme through the next few songs the sound is fairly minimalist, with the almost drony guitar patterns becoming more animated track-by-track, livened by bells on the folky House Carpenter and becoming urgent on In Speed before slowing right down again for Taki Pejzaz.
On the first listen to the eight minutes of Taki Pejzaz, as it steadily travels like a one-way train to the next station on this journey, it’s hard not to be wondering what is going on outside the window; whatever it is, it appears to bring whatever protagonists the production may have up to the surface for a while. Roadkill, despite its morbid subject, evokes open space as much as its predecessors do the caverns of the underground. A beautiful finger picked guitar motif accompanies a duet between Frykdahl and McCarthy that is suddenly a lot more free-flowing.
Likewise Earth’s Kiss opens up a wider acoustic palette, and moves stylistically into a broader prog-opera landscape. Fire and Castration clashes a rare overdriven guitar motif with an almost Kurt Weill-esque ensemble number, then descends into a long passage of distant guitar, station ambiences and echoey piano – again, you can’t help but wonder what’s happening on stage. Then the energy picks up again, with the Gong-like psyche-jazz of Questioning and the music-hall banter of Corwith Brothers taking the cycle onto its homeward descent.
Dream On A Train takes us there, an understated duet over piano that is more Stephen Sondheim than prog-folk. This feels like the true musical destination, with the closing strains of I’d Like To Be (recalling the style of the opening songs) more like a postcard home than a return. It’s as if it’s returned to the x-axis, but at another, further and irreversible point in time.
So The Transit Rider, as a whole, is a beautifully constructed piece of work quite aside from the music within and is musically enchanting throughout. A few moments of potential tedium do crop up between songs, at those points where the music actually suffers from the loss of the staging – but these are rare. The overriding impression is that Faun Fables have produced a haunting and beautiful album; one which deserves to be heard.