Megafaun’s 2009 full-length, Gather, Form and Fly, covered a lot of territory: strummy acoustic folk, 70’s AM gold, free-jazz and traditional country. Their 2010 “mini-album,” Heretofore, went to further extremes, with compact, rootsy songs like “Volunteers,” co-existing uneasily with crazily excessive jams like “Comprovisation for Connor Pass,” a twelve-minute freak-out, featuring ambient noise, stacks of horns and droning strings.Brothers Brad and Phil Cook and Joe Westerlund have the chops for this kind of challenging music and largely were able to pull off these jarring juxtapositions. But truly great bands like Radiohead or Wilco are able to incorporate their experimentation into a cohesive whole, not segregate their outlandish impulses into a separate avant-garde ghetto.
This issue has been largely resolved on Megafaun’s new, self-titled album. Classic melodies, sweet-spot harmonies and straight-up songcraft are up front where they belong. The opener, “Real Slow,” recalls the easy, loping vibe of the Grateful Dead. “Second Friend” conjures the vulnerable tunefulness of All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison. Other influences include Neil Young, America, the ubiquitous CSN and oddly, Bruce Hornsby, who Megafaun channel on “Hope You Know.” Another Hornsby fan, former bandmate Justin Vernon shows up on “Get Right,” a good song that goes on way too long.
The three instrumentals here function as transitions between songs and don’t try to dominate the proceedings. Only one of them, the “Auld Lang Syne”-inspired “Isadora” feels like a fully structured composition. Megafaun’s experiments are not their strong suit. The jams and instrumentals should be a lot more compelling than they are to justify their presence alongside such great, traditional songwriting.
Still, these North Carolina boys have an authenticity that can’t be taught. Their influences are apparent, but not overly emulative or spot-the-reference clever. Megafaun is a band heading in the right direction and this is a very, very good album. Expect a great one next time.