Megafaun has famous friends.
At this point in their careers, Joe Westerlund and brothers Brad and Phil Cook (all multi-instrumentalists, singers, songwriters, and proud beard owners) are far more well-known for their collaborations and one-offs than their own brand-name works. Besides releasing two quietly acclaimed albums (2008’s Bury the Square and 2009’s Hometapes debut Gather, Form, & Fly), this North Carolina-based trio has recorded, toured, and collaborated with the likes of Akron/Family, the Dodos, and, most famously, Bon Iver. The Megafaun/Bon Iver connection is especially noteworthy considering the musical history. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon previously served as frontman for the now defunct DeYarmond Edison, a band which also featured Westerlund and the Cooks.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Megafaun and Bon Iver have a lot in common musically. Both groups frequently pull from ancient traditions like folk, Americana, and withered soul, but they’re also too fond of noisy freakouts and ambient soundscapes to fit neatly into any of those genres.
Megafaun is actually the freakier and more unpredictable of the two groups. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on your tolerance for laidback, country-inflected tracks rubbing sonic elbows with unpredictable free-jazz workouts. You’re never safe with Megafaun. Just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on their sound, they throw a musical curveball your way. A beautiful folk tune can turn into an orchestral piece at the drop of a fiddle.
Heretofore, a 34-minute “mini album”, as the press release calls it (what happened to EP?) serves as an opportunity for the band to regain its identity after working through the endless collaborations and projects that have pushed the Megafaun namesake to the sidelines. An “exercise in songwriting and discipline”, Heretofore was written and recorded quickly (the process took less than two months), but that doesn’t translate to the music, which never sounds half-assed. In fact, the scope of sounds and ideas on display is staggering. But hey, what would you expect from these guys?
The opening title track, with its absorbing electric guitar patterns and blissful vocal harmonies, is about as straightforward as Heretofore gets, even with its time-signature fluctuations and bubbling sound effects. “Eagle” sounds a lot like something Wilco would have created back when they cared about being weird (A Ghost Is Born), layering barroom piano squeaks and noise around jangly 7th chords. But when the track morphs into a random bass groove and then, later, a gruff baritone saxophone solo, you’re soaring in altitudes of freakdom Jeff Tweedy wouldn’t dare explore. “Volunteers”, on the other hand, is a simply beautiful Americana track with some good ol’ fashioned banjo pickin’ and images of “Sunlight silhouettes and dogwood trees / Swayin’ all alone in the Carolina breeze”.
Let’s talk for a minute about “Comprovisation for Connor Pass”, a 12-minute, nearly indescribable, hugely ambitious piece of music that is not only the highlight on this mini-album of small wonders but also one of the most incredible tracks of the year. It opens with a haphazard casualness, a parade of jazzy, fingerpicked acoustics and decaying cymbals. It works its way through free-jazz mania – drum sticks clicking, acoustic pianos comping – before it brings you right back where you started. When a brief, flirtatious section of woodwinds enter several minutes in, the effect is both hallucinatory and incredibly gorgeous. Is that a cello? Yes, sir. Do I hear actual wind chimes? I don’t know, but it sure sounds like it. At times it feels like prime Talk Talk; sometimes, Bon Iver. Mostly, it sounds like nothing else – just the way Megafaun likes it.
Their website is quick to point out that “this is not the new Megafaun album that will be recorded in Fall 2010”. I don’t think they’ll have to worry about disappointing anyone. With Heretofore, they’ve created a remarkably strong collection of songs that only gets better the deeper you probe. Who needs famous friends when you’re this damn good?