Since Wilco's 2002 masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
, folky, rootsy rock bands have had to step up their game. It's not enough anymore to just strum G and C chords and rely on plaintive melodies. You've got to pile on the flavor combinations, the more unexpected the better. Pretty ballads must be disrupted by screeching synths. Steady shuffles get broken up by found-sound clatter. In the hands of a talented group, this can come across as experimental and daring, but in lesser hands it feels indulgent, masturbatory.
Megafaun is standing at the proverbial crossroads. Their new six song "mini-album," Heretofore
, is a bridge between last year's acclaimed, Gather, Form and Fly
, and their upcoming, as yet untitled full-length. These bearded North Carolinians have had a busy couple of years, making their own music, participating in the Gayngs project and touring with Akron/Family and ex-bandmate Justin Vernon's Bon Iver.
"The Fade," off of Gather, Form and Fly
, was one of the best tracks of 2009, managing to capture the spirit of 70's AM Gold bands like America, and George Harrison's laid back melodicism, all within the space of 2:55. Similarly, Heretofore
's "Volunteers," is another under three minute stunner, effortlessly evoking The Band and CSN, without sounding overly emulative. The vocals of brothers Brad and Phil Cook and Joe Westerlund are pure Appalachian heaven, but they break with tradition as often as they nod to it. "Sunlight silhouettes/Dogwood trees/Swaying all along in the Carolina..." they sing, but deliberately leave out the last word, which so clearly should be 'breeze.' This is just one of the ways Megafaun toy with listeners' expectations. Just like last year's head-scratcher, "Impressions of the Past," which attempted to mix Ragtime, Skiffle, dissonant noise-rock and Broadway show tunes, on Heretofore
, we have the twelve and a half minute instrumental, "Comprovosation for Connor Pass," which blends ambient noise, meditative acoustic guitar arpeggios, stacked free jazz horns and droning strings. It's like some unholy mix of Steely Dan, John Cage, Jack Rose and Bill Dixon, and amazingly enough, the whole throbbing, unwieldy thing actually works.
The real test for Megafaun will be incorporating these disparate elements more successfully into their more conventional songs and rest of the tunes on Heretofore
largely fall into that category. "Bonnie's Song" even begins with a direct quote from John Mellencamp's "Pink Houses". If they can manage to make their stylistic excursions feel more essential, and not just squirrel away all their experimentation into one long, trippy freak-out per record, it'll be a major step forward for them. But even if their next album includes a twenty minute polka-influenced space jam, it'll still be worth a listen.-dan siegler
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MP3: Carolina Days
Megafaun on Myspace