Light of a Vaster Dark is the first full-length from Faun Fables — duo Dawn McCarthy and Nils Frykdahl along with a few additional musicians — since 2006’s The Transit Rider. In the interim, Frykdahl and McCarthy have had two daughters, and the themes of motherhood and domesticity dominate the album, as they did the 2008 EP A Table Forgotten This time around, however, McCarthy has added a historical element to the mix: the mothers and housekeepers that populate Light are early American settlers and pioneers, and the liner notes reference the inspiration of both Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder (of Little House on the Prairie fame).
Given the subject matter, it’s surprising that Light is Faun Fables’s least “American”-sounding album. While American and British folk music were a clear source of inspiration, especially in her early work, McCarthy here seems to have left them behind entirely. Brought to the fore instead are the Eastern European and Gypsy influences palpable on The Transit Rider; here, McCarthy’s guitar takes a back seat to violins, flutes and woodwinds, courtesy of Frykdahl and others. Always an inventive lyricist, McCarthy also brings words to forefront, often giving the impression that she is “setting” a preexisting text to music, as on the title track. This foregrounding of the verbal seems to influence the songwriting as well: as lyrically interesting as they might be, several tracks here are rather skeletal and repetitive by McCarthy’s standards (“Sweeping Spell,” “Hear the Grinder Creak”), focusing on rhythm rather than melody.
McCarthy and Frykdahl have enough flair as performers and a strong enough aesthetic vision to make anything they record worth repeated listens, and Light of a Vaster Dark is, like all their work, uncommonly beautiful. Even so, it’s markedly less compelling and more uneven than their previous albums together: instrumentals and short pieces, some of which were recorded live as part of a stage production, pad out the running time, and only a few tracks (“Housekeeper,” “O Mary,” “Hibernation Tales”) really demonstrate the duo’s capabilities. Much of the material is amorphous and mood-based, moving away from the dense arrangements and carefully crafted songs that were the strongest parts of the earlier albums, nor are the usual out-of-left-field covers and songwriting contributions from Frykdahl anywhere to be found. The sheer impressiveness of tracks like “Housekeeper,” a suite-like paean to domestic femininity that weaves a web of violins around bass clarinets and Frykdahls’s distinctively melodic bass playing, creating a tonality that sits somewhere between the middle eastern and the gothic (only 1970s prog-folk outfit Comus seems like a fitting comparison), makes it seem as though McCarthy is holding back elsewhere.
Lovely as it may be, Light of a Vaster Dark largely lacks the surprising, adventurous quality of Faun Fables’s past efforts, coming off as monotone and unremarkable in comparison.