Folk music is too often pinned to conservative types, but there’s a real musically progressive streak running through its veins. Before physical recording was made available, folk songs moved via word-of-mouth, with each composition left up to the performer’s interpretation. Thus, no two versions sound the same. Years and years of personal weathering keep folk songs moving forward while still rooted in the past.
Over the course of three albums and an EP, Megafaun have tapped into this overarching folk narrative. While so many bands and artists are content to play dress up with acoustic guitars and harmonicas, the North Carolina band understands that you can weave in modernity in a special way. Megafaun, their third album to date, is the culmination of years of this sort of exploration and the band’s most sprawling, dazzling statement yet.
Like past efforts, Megafaun stands simple acoustic songs alongside jazzier workouts and avant-garde experiments. Their ability to sound both classic and forward-thinking is their greatest attribute, and these various voices can largely be attributed to the communal nature of the trio. They seem to genuinely enjoy working together, taking it easy while still tackling some heavy questions. Opener “Real Slow” is almost a mission statement for the band itself, lazily intoning “Take your time/Everyone knows/If it starts too fast/It’s gonna end real slow.” The song’s Southern rock-isms could sound corny in anyone else’s hands, but Megafaun are nothing if not tasteful. They achieve a similar widescreen effect on “Get Right,” an insistent strummer that shows the band’s jammy roots are still strong. The noisy bedrock is a nice counterpoint, adding a bit of menace to the sunshine burning overhead.
Even the album’s more familiar moments still reach high. “State/Meant” and “Resurrection” employ a tried-and-true folk-rock chug, but they’re worn well by a band that’s unafraid of the big melody. On the folk-pop of “Second Friend,” swelling strings punctuate a simple love song just as it approaches headier lyrical territory. Megafaun accept their dual nature with a smile, observing that “any moment now/Our river will be changing course/We may not have the time to drift and glide/ Just like the day before.” It hits on a broader theme within Megafaun’s music: staying grounded, but not at the expense of looking for something new.
And that search leads to some of the album’s highest notes. First single “These Words” wraps found sounds and electronic textures into a complex melody, but at its heart lies a catchy tune that makes the best use of the band’s ever-present harmonies. “Isadora” turns “Auld Lang Syne” into a jazzy explosion at the album’s center, and “Scorned” places blues riffs next to blasted-out harmonicas that wail like devilish electric guitars. At every turn, Megafaun take these well-worn ideas and add fresh new ingredients.
The fact that Megafaun sounds so effortless is a testament to the band’s true sense of itself. They continually adapt, looking to the past for inspiration but without getting bogged down in the dusty history. It’s apparent they’re looking to construct a big tent for everyone to fit in, and unsurprisingly they’re succeeding wildly.
Although technically a mini-album, 2010's critically acclaimed Heretofore served as Megafaun's third proper effort. It additionally represented the experimental Durham, N.C. band's precursor to their self-titled record, which is perhaps their most ambitious. The styles explored on here include instrumental free jazz, stripped-down rock, ambient soundscapes, and much more.