Faun Fables is the alter ego of Dawn McCarthy, who collaborates with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum (yeah, I’ve never heard of them either) frontman Nils Frykdahl on preposterous avant-folk ballads of the English tradition of Donovan, Melanie, and Fairport Convention. As one can expect, concept albums and costumes have ensued, and the duo’s newest record, The Transit Rider, is adapted from a full length theatrical performance first performed in 2002. Theatrical performance of what, you may ask? Well, The Transit Rider is, according to Drag City’s press release, about the “complete world of the NYC subway [and] all its repetitious and transient glory.” Undeniably pretentious and silly beyond comprehension, Faun Fables’ The Transit Rider is nonetheless delivered with excessive earnestness and sincerity (the liner notes quote Heidegger). Is this a joke? And, if so, is Faun Fables in on it?
The Transit Rider starts out with the inevitable intro track: a collage of wind, ocean, and train sound effects so cheap that I thought the CD was skipping. Then McCarthy begins singing from the perspective of the title “character”: “I am a transit rider goings and comings at all hours/In the light and in the dark, wait for my train but I don’t have to park.” These Weird Al Yankovicisms are largely ignorable because McCarthy has a fine soprano, though someone needs to let her know that she’s more of a Chan Marshall than a Kate Bush. “Transit Rider Theme,” like most of the songs here, is a minor key dirge a la Shirley Collins or perhaps Jefferson Airplane (dig those autoharps!), only mixed with lots of reverb. When Frykdahl’s falsetto closed the track out with the line “The tokens are a dollar twenty-five,” I started to wonder if these songs were outtakes from the Succubus episode of South Park. The third track, “In Speed,” is particularly ridiculous: it sounds like Tenacious D performing the songs from The Wicker Man.
What enjoyment can be culled from The Transit Rider comes from McCarthy and Frykdahl’s choice of covers: the lovely Anglo Saxon traditional “House Carpenter” and songs from obscure European folksters Zygmunt Konieczny and Souer Sourire. These interpretations of others’ works are gentle, reverent, and, unlike the bulk of The Transit Rider, charming. The problem with the rest of this pompous mess is its overdose of reverence: the lyric sheet’s Waste Land-style footnotes for each track, the serious-as-cancer performance of songs written by McCarthy’s mother and stockbroker father, pagan chanting reminiscent of the “Stonehenge” scene in This Is Spinal Tap, and did I mention that this is a concept album about the New York City subway? I’ve ridden the subway plenty of times and never felt inspired to write an opera or do anything except maybe take a shower. Faun Fables may suggest I’m missing something. Regardless, even I think The Transit Rider does a great disservice to its muse.