Their highly anticipated second album. All the hints they've given us from songs Stereogum described as "mournful, slow-blooming banjo-and-white-noise-laced epics" to tours with The Rosebuds, Arnold Dreyblatt, and Akron Family have culminated in a record that's an ode to death, love, musical history, community, tradition, and experimentation. In all, it's an ode to the listener.
Review by Ned Raggett
The relentless re-embrace of acoustic campfire ponderings and singalongs may seem a bit strange in the 21st century, but as far as everything progresses, there will always be a harkening back to some form of a mythic lost paradise of the form. That said, Megafaun are just as taken by quietly tortured dark-night-of-the-soul whisperings, lo-fi oddities, and shards of feedback shade as they are of banjos and summertime evenings, giving Gather, Form and Fly a bit of an unsettled edge at various points. Songs like "Kaufman's Ballad" and the slightly goony swirl of "Impressions of the Past," shifting from marches to piano breaks and more, make for more fun than the straightforward if attractive enough compositions like "Worried Mind" and "Solid Ground." At their strongest, as on the brawling, complex "The Process," the trio verges towards the explosive thrill of an act like Akron/Family if not reaching that act's effortless genre recombination.
"Plant that flag on solid ground," advise the members of Megafaun on their second album, Gather, Form & Fly. The trio-- comprised of brothers Brad and Phil Cook and Joe Westerlund-- sing that admonition repeatedly, in boisterous unison, yet they have no intention of taking such advice, at least not musically. In fact, since the disbanding of their previous band DeYarmond Edison (with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon), they have celebrated the joys of shaky foundations, creating ingeniously ramshackle folk rock that combines acoustic instruments and mountain harmonies with obtuse sound collages, meandering song structures, and abstract passages featuring the most psychedelic banjo imaginable. As if to illustrate this point, they've even designed the album cover so that it works either as a square or as a diamond, the subtle shift of landscape revealing new ambiguities.
"Solid Ground" kicks off with a dirty guitar riff and a walking bass line, unfolding as a formally repetitive blues. This type of structure-- the same line three times, followed by a new fourth line-- is perhaps the most solid ground in rock, yet Megafaun make it slippery by adding a squealing solo whose feedback emanates not from a guitar, but from a closely mic'ed blues harmonica. Near the end, the casual midtempo groove threatens to fall apart as the instruments break stride, but Megafaun manage to keep it together. Averse to predictability and sentimentality, the band is restless with established forms, yet instead of subverting blues and folk traditions, they upend them. Their ends are deconstructive, not destructive.
This tendency, however, made their 2008 debut, Bury the Square, sound frustratingly divided, as if the band's divergent musical urges had been compartmentalized and overthought. It was as though they had all the pieces, but were unsure how to fit them together. Gather, Form & Fly improves dramatically on that release, integrating musical styles more organically and confidently to play up the contrasts between them. "Solid Ground" segues seamlessly into the múm-like "Darkest Hour", which turns water droplets into a rudimentary melody before morphing into waves crashing on a beach and finally settling into a thunderstorm backdrop for splices of a hymnal roundelay. Similarly, "Impressions of the Past" begins with a shuffling intro that never coalesces into a vocal-based song. Instead, it's 10 or 12 different songs before the vocals enter in the final minutes, and even then, they sound like just another instrument in the mix. The song doesn't present a fully formed memory but, as its title suggests, a series of memory traces-- brief, bittersweet, and impossible to hang on to.
Megafaun's songs change shape constantly-- a thrillingly mercurial quality that makes Gather, Form & Fly a headily absorbing, occasionally unsettling listen. Despite their musical wanderlust, the trio remain firmly rooted in the Appalachian foothills, enamored with folk traditions and pastoral airs. The album opens with "Bella Marie", a gossamer overture featuring guitar, piano, and a violin so closely mic'ed you can hear the friction of the bow on strings. Joe Westerlund's clattery percussion on "The Process" can't disguise its chicken-coop soul, and Christy Smith, of Nola, North Carolina's the Tender Fruit, duets on "The Longest Day", a delicate country number that floats along on tender banjo and guitar strums. The buoyant melody of "The Fade", perhaps the most instantly accessible song here, recalls locals the Kingsbury Manx as the Cook brothers sing about the death of their grandfather and the tragic shortcomings of memory: "It's been a year," they sing together, "and now I fear the fade is on." (Trivia: That's him on the CD and etched into side four of the vinyl.)
Moments like that lend Gather, Form & Fly its warmth and accessibility, despite the intentionally shaky foundations of songs like "Guns", which begins with one of their best moments: "All we'll ever be, all we'll ever need," the trio sing together, with a mix of triumph and forlornness, before ominous rumblings dislodge their vocals from the emphatic guitar strums and drown them all in gentle noise. Rather than blanch the song of its momentousness, that spectral coda makes it all the more meaningful, as if they've just stepped from a sunlit clearing into dark woods. While some listeners may grow weary of such insistent drones, and while it's tempting to read these tendencies as opposite extremes, ultimately there are no simple dichotomies in these songs, no easy distinctions between written and improvised, concrete and fluid, organic and synthetic. All the sounds and ideas emanate from the same sources and desires, and the prismatic contrasts between them illuminate this intriguing and heartfelt album.
Stephen M. Deusner, July 24, 2009