I’ve spent a good chunk of my life on public transit. So much, in fact, that I’ve used it as inspiration for some of my artwork. I understand the romanticism that can be attached to it and the draw it has to artists. That said, I don’t think I was quite prepared for the extent that government-funded transportation would play into Faun Fables’ The Transit Rider.
Let’s back up here, just for a moment. Faun Fables is the brainchild of Oakland, CA singer/songwriter Dawn McCarthy, and The Transit Rider thematically began in 1994 when McCarthy first took the New York City subway system and was taken by the repetition and the mechanics of it all. Working with frequent collaborator, Nils Frykdhal, The Transit Rider also features collaborations with McCarthy’s parents. To really drive the theme home, the songs were also presented as a live theatrical show in 2002 in San Francisco working with director Allen Willner and a cast of thirteen.
That’s some ambition Dawn McCarthy has got there.
The Transit Rider begins with a sound of a train and McCarthy’s cry sounding like a train whistle. It immediately harkens back to the romanticism of trains. This isn’t really about the subway systems of today but more about the steam trains of the days of yore. The opening strums of “Transit Theme” recall the sparse guitar work of The Decemberists’ “The Tain.” If Faun Fables isn’t BFFs with The Decemberists, they’re at least in the same English class. There is something very similar between McCarthy and Colin Meloy’s style of songwriting. Both are partial to spinning yarns about times past, yet while Meloy is drawn to sea shanties, McCarthy leans towards more gothic tales.
“Transit Theme” is a slow, haunting song with repeating refrains of “I am the transit rider.” “House Carpenter” is a driving cautionary tale adapted from traditional Anglo Saxon folk song, haunting and creating an ambiance of the past. In fact, this whole album has an antique feel about it. The original songs have more in common with storybook tales than any modern pop song. “In Speed,” with additional vocals by Frykdhal and the cast of The Transit Rider, is almost operatic but also a bit like a high school musical cast. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good musical but listening to “In Speed” and “Earth’s Kiss” I felt like it lost its translation and perhaps was better viewed as part of the play.
There are some lovely songs that are faithful to folk traditions, particularly in the Anglo Saxon and Celtic vein, but then we have songs that feel a little out of place. At times during “Earth’s Kiss,” I felt like I was listening to an original cast musical recording than the work of a band. Perhaps that’s more of what this is—a recording of an ambitious, experimental project. Unlike other concept albums that tell a story, The Transit Rider sounds as though it’d be better seen as a performance rather than as an album. There’s a theatricality of the songwriting and the execution that seems like there’s something missing from the songs. Still, it’s an ambitious piece of work and McCarthy is certainly a songwriter with extraordinary stories to tell.