Ruggedly individualistic and highly traditional, rural and modern, intimate and grand, accessible and experimental: Gather, Form & Fly, the second LP by Raleigh transplants Megafaun, stalks and captures the wild and free sounds of American music. Over 13 patiently developed and patently diverse tracks, the trio uses brotherly harmonies, lonely hymns and folky strums to buy themselves space for noise sprees and deeper weirdness, always encircling a focused, affable center.
So, straight to that core: Megafaun has made an album for indie pop connoisseurs, or for those partial to melancholy-laden nü-folkers like local faves Bowerbirds, The National, Sufjan Stevens or Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, with whom Megafaun moved to Raleigh in 2005 as the quartet DeYarmond Edison. Smart, sad songs with quiet Beatlesy twists ("The Fade"), cosmic advice ("The Longest Day") and a good country refrain stolen probably at least once previously by Woody Guthrie ("Worried Mind") are invitations to sing.
Indeed, Megafaun understands that the human voice is infinitely relatable, an invitation. The perfect three-part harmonies of Phil and Brad Cook and drummer Joe Westerlund—especially on a ghostly desert floater like "Kaufman's Ballad" or the shouter "Solid Ground"—could sell a microtonal doom jam to an NPR listener, should Megafaun decide to sell one. On the former, the band's ode to Gram Parsons, they sing like Crosby, Stills & Nash while brother Phil's banjo plants an American flag in the high desert. Underscoring it, though, is a series of high, sharp vibrations via Westerlund's bowed percussion and guest violinist Jess Fox.
But Gather, Form & Fly takes its time, too, distilling the occasionally meandering twangscapes of Megafaun's 2008 debut, Bury the Square, around the band's strongest songs yet. Though fewer than half of these tracks contain anything remotely difficult (the gorgeous "The Longest Day," for instance, is just good ol' sangin' and pickin'), there's plenty of music for the record dorks.
Like the multisection "Impressions of the Past"—side A's penultimate number, if one is scoring by LP sides. A brief horn-pop instrumental gives way to a pastoral Joshua Bell/Edgar Meyer-like bit of classical Americana before exploding into what sounds like the "Truckin'" riff. Just imagine that riff rewritten for a string-abetted marching band arranged by someone like Arnold Dreyblatt, a minimalist composer (and Megafaun collaborator) who strings upright basses with piano wires to create irridescent, pulsing sounds. The references are exhausting and exhilarating, cataloguing new styles as quickly as they can discard old ones. In the end, though, it all blends into a short, exultant sing-along. One's record collection needn't be as big as the band's to get that.
These ideas—never taking a sound or style for granted or on its own terms—separate Megafaun from such bearded, acoustic guitar-wielding brethren as Fleet Foxes. And it's all so assured: It's not necessarily natural for a band to move from harmonized pop over a banjo-built African groove (like Phish, minus the cornball routine) into Brad Cook's knob-spun ether, as Megafaun do on "Columns." One wishes there were even more tangents.
But the trio knows their path well before they start traveling: Phil's banjo disintegrates into droplets. Noise overtakes. It's done. This is the type of music that could show a lot of people The Way.
The approach serves best on "Darkest Hour," in which a field recording of birds and an approaching storm (punctuated by Westerlund drumming along with dripping water) lingers long enough to be more than mere atmosphere. Just at the point that a strum-deprived listener might give up, in swoops the angelic three-part country-and-western barbershop. It is a great effect, going from chance formlessness to sudden, almost formal form, and the ground beneath one's feet seems immaterial.
Bowerbirds and Megafaun tour North America together through mid-August, returning home for a shared bill at The ArtsCenter Saturday, Aug. 22.