Though I'd not heard of Jason Karaban before, the three songs on Mayfly resonated with me. Inspired by images of the Civil War, these are haunting, sad songs tinged with regret and loss stripped down to a bare few instruments and melodies.
Karaban was accompanied by Chris Joyner on piano ("No Casualties") and Lucy Schwartz on backing vocals ("Sullivan Ballou" and "No Casualties"), but "A Far Better Place" is Karaban going solo. But Karaban seems to surround himself with diverse talent frequently. Whether with Joyner or Schwartz, Karaban's voice has a soft, almost ethereal quality that lends credence to the heady topics of these songs.
This is Karaban's fourth release, starting with Doomed to Make Choices in 2005, Leftovers in 2006, and then Sobriety Kills in early 2009. On his albums he's worked with a veritable "who's who" of guest musicians such as Joyner and Schwartz. Guests have included Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), David Immerglück (Counting Crows), Ani DiFranco, Ivan Neville (Rolling Stones, Neville Brothers), Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket), and many more.
The power of the simple songs of Mayfly is palpable not only in the melodies and performances, but the lyrics. It's hard to argue with "The seeds of old were strewn across the field and blew away" in "Sullivan Ballou". The images evoked are those of the bloody remains of battles fought those many years ago. It's rare to find an artist willing to take a chance on such a sad topic.
It continues with "No Casualties" and Joyner's stripped down piano playing and someone playing a soft trumpet. Again, not cheerful lyrics, but evocative ones speaking of having no casualties during a retreat, and later losing people as "they drop like flies" during a battle. War is hell and the camaraderie between soldiers fighting on the front lines wavers between cheer and despair from one encounter to the next.
And finally in "A Far Better Place" you hear in the background the echoes of men in war as once again, the despair is tinged with cheer of fallen brothers. The fallen head off to a far better place after fighting – "no disgrace from the shame we do" – again, calling back to the horrific violence of the Civil War where brother fought brother and horrible acts done in the name if one cause or another.
I believe Mayfly is meant to make us consider the costs of war, whether today or yesterday. But beyond that, it's significant to find an artist expressing his visions and challenge our preconceptions of the purpose of music. In this case, Karaban shows a contemplative, almost cathartic understanding of a complex topic.
If you're interested in challenging yourself emotionally through music, be sure to check out Mayfly. I know his songs will haunt me for a while.