What is it about Megafaun’s Phil Cook and bad weather? In 2009, he recorded his self-titled debut EP during a particularly violent thunderstorm, which added ominous static to the tune “D.L.’s Holler.”
Earlier this year, he set his second set, Hungry Mother Blues, to tape during an ice storm, as if playing guitar, dobro and banjo while stomping out time on the floor was a good way to keep his fingers and toes warm.
The sleet and cool doesn’t invade these instrumentals the way the rain once did, but perhaps it reminded Cook of his native Wisconsin. Each song here is dedicated to a different person, including his unborn child. Even without knowing that backstory, you can hear as much: Whether in the patient gathering of notes in “Juniper” or the short, quirky “Sparrowander,” these songs feel like characters.
Recorded with no overdubs, each song features a distinctive lead instrument and its own peculiar stamp. Taking up a guitar, Cook gives opener “Frazee, Minnesota” a ruminative tone of quiet yearning, intercut with the wheeze of harmonica and the soft tap of feet (er, Feat?) on the floor. Hungry Mother Blues ends with the eloquent, inebriated slide guitar slurs of “The Jensens,” evoking the dizzy calm of a slight buzz. Throughout the album, His Feat are a subtle backing band, stomping out simple rhythms that reinforce rather than distract.
The work provides a nice counterpart to his music with Megafaun, making it less a side project and more a satellite orbiting that band’s three records of folk deconstructions. Whereas that band often builds its songs up only to let them fall apart in intriguing and organic entropy, Cook’s solo material shows no experimental urge, hewing closely to strict song structures. He allows the melodic themes to resolve naturally.
While Cook’s playing is spry and dexterous, this somewhat traditional tack could have turned out cold and showy, culminating in a demonstration tape that showcases his skills at various stringed instruments, as though he were applying for a job. Instead, his curiosity and affection bind these songs together, making for a cohesive whole and not a compartmentalized how-to. Hungry Mother Blues sounds more spirited and surefooted than his debut, then, without the disruptive one-man-band flourishes of manic percussion and bluesy harmonica.
The obvious touchstone here is John Fahey, a player whose legacy sometimes overwhelms a new generation of musicians fascinated by American folk traditions; none, it seems, can escape his influence. Cook even covers “The Last Steam Engine Train,” here retitled “The Last Steam Train” and recast as a runaway locomotive. With his foot tapping out irregular time, he plays the song with such abandon it’s a wonder it even stays on the tracks.
Hungry Mother Blues includes just eight tracks that take 20 minutes. Perhaps because it’s so short, there’s a sense that Cook recorded these modest tunes primarily for himself, whether for the simple joy of making music or just out of restlessness on a snowy day. He doesn’t sweat perfection. He prizes a rustic fervor over instrumental precision; the flubbed notes on “Waiting Round the Oven Buns” remain intact. In that regard, Hungry Mother Blues resembles Megafaun in its emphasis on performance, which distinguishes that band from so many likeminded acts. They strive to make every rendition of a song sound unique and unrepeatable. Cook doesn’t leave quite as much to chance on Hungry Mother Blues, but he does make it sound like a record of a particular moment, mood or storm.