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Impressions of the past

July 28, 2009
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centered pictures: so 2008centered pictures: so 2008

While I was in college, one of my main extra-curricular activities was being in a frat. We did all the normal things frats do, like having Daft Punk’s opening act play a DJ set at our house at 3am, have an Israeli punk band lead hundreds of people outside and attempt to trash the frat next door’s house (while the cops stood and stared), had the Dead Milkmen attempt to put a hole in our floor again like they did in the 80s, and host a yearly Human Barbeque. Oh, and we played beer pong once.

One of my happiest memories of Pilam was a show we put on back at the start of the last school year. A band from North Carolina called Megafaun was headlining the show, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was like if you took blues, folk, electronica and very Southern part-harmonies, put them in a blender and dropped it into a bathtub. I approached some of the members after the set to tell them how much I enjoyed it, and I remember telling them I thought they sounded like “a more cohesive Bon Iver”, and being greeted with stony stares and silence. Eventually one of the guys spoke up and told me that was because they used to be his band. They were the guys that fired Justin Vernon and drove him to a cabin in the middle of nowhere and burgeoning success. It was the first time in a while I’d put my foot in my mouth that bad, and reminded me why I don’t talk to people I don’t know very often. At any rate, the guys didn’t seem too perturbed by my tactlessness, and we got to talking. Someone in Pilam had left a small classical guitar out, and I’d been playing around on it all night, mainly chords that belonged to some Neil Young song or other. Turned out that the guys in Megafaun were also fans of Neil, which shouldn’t have been that surprising, considering their sound, but I’m always surprised when someone shows enthusiasm  for songs he wrote that don’t appear on After the Goldrush. We started singing some tunes, together, got a few people around us to join in as well, and I even went back onstage with them.

After a very long night, I woke up on the floor next to my bed and found a copy of their record next to me. Bury The Square was the only music they’d released up to that point; a 40-minute, six-song record that sat somewhere between EP and LP. While it didn’t grab my attention quite as much as their powerful live set had, it grew on me to the point of near-infatuation. I couldn’t wait for the band to return to Pilam as they’d suggested they would in the Spring, nor could I wait for their first full-length record. As the end of the school year and my time as an undergrad came to an end, the band never returned and no new music had surfaced. I gave up checking for new updates on the band’s MySpace, and then out of the blue last week, my cousin told asked me if I’d heard of this band Megafaun.

theres always their horse-whispering business to fall back on if the record doesnt take offthere’s always their horse-whispering business to fall back on if the record doesn’t take off

Their new record, Gather, Form & Fly, is finally out, released on the indie label Hometapes, out of Portland, OR. It’s hard to adequately express my feelings on this record, seeing as I’d been waiting so long for it, like a Godot that actually showed up. It’s hard to admit, but I feel like even if  the record had just been average, some part of me would probably have wanted to say it’s amazing, as it’s a genre I feel like I cannot get enough of. Granted, this record’s a fair bit better than average: other jerks seem to agree with me, too.

The first thing that really struck me about the record was that Megafaun had figured out how to construct more pop songs. Other than “Lazy Suicide”, most of the content on their EP, while excellent, just flowed together in some sort of through-composed mess of beautiful madness. This new record had tracks. They’re tracks in the same way that when you put on an old Wilco record with your friends, and a bunch of them will say multiple times, “I love this song”. “Kaufman’s Ballad”, “The Fade” and “Worried Mind” are simple and well constructed, in a pretty traditional sense that make the band sound more like another Fleet Foxes or Bon Iver than as expansive as they can be. These songs aren’t boring, far from it, but they surprised me, like Robin Williams after he showered and shaved in Jumanji – so cleaned up and normal you don’t recognize them.

That’s not to say Gather, Form & Fly is without its sprawling, meandering sections: “Impressions of the Past” is a five minute mostly-instrumental piece that eventually devolves into a pop song like you get on Bury the Square. Then there are parts that are just straight up odd, like “The Process” and “Darkest Hour”, with its liberal uses of ring modulators (think Daleks) and raindrops as rhythmical devices. Then there are songs that are hard to describe in totally different ways, like “Columns”, which starts off sounding like a bluesy Graceland B-side, or “Guns”, which has the expanse of a late Flaming Lips song, mixed with the modern prog style of something as out there as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, all on top of a rather normal pop song. Overall, the album is like a shattered stained glass window, where all the brightly colored pieces fell perfectly on top of each other, in an increasingly intricate pattern as it moves from top to bottom.

Wikipedia doesn’t have an article on Megafaun yet, surprisingly, but in the article on DeYarmond Edison, it says that the members went off to form the ‘freak-folk’ band Megafaun. It’s pretty easy to see how loud electronic noises and banjos could lead someone to characterize them as such, and there are lots of examples ‘freakiness’ on this record, but to extend my earlier Wilco reference, it’s not that different from the ‘weird’ parts of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I guess my point is that this description is pigeonholing the band a bit too much. While I don’t want the band to follow in their ex-singer’s footsteps and sound more like Coldplay with each passing day, I think this album has the potential to be really popular, but I could see people being unnecessarily put off by their hyped weirdness. Then again, if lots of people can put up with nutjobs like Devendra Banhart or Prince and like their music, perhaps I’m being overly concerned. Headling act of Super Bowl LVIII: Megafaun?

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