If “folk music” in its most traditional sense is the music of the folk—the lower classes, the salt of the earth—then “antifolk” would logically be the music of the aristocracy, right? The New York Philharmonic or opera or Merzbow or whatever’s playing down at Lincoln Center or Tonic tonight, that’s antifolk. Isn’t it? Or maybe it’s the sonic opposite of what in recent decades has come to be known as “folk,” which is generally soft, inoffensive acoustic guitar-based mush. So then antifolk would be death metal or grindcore or gangsta rap. Or maybe Merzbow again.
If Merzbow walked into Sidewalk Café on a Monday to participate in the weekly open-mic night known as the Antihootenanny, he probably wouldn’t get asked back. That’s because what “antifolk” means around these parts is a specific scene, based in the East Village, that’s been percolating for the past 20 years or so. Its founder and patron saint (and Antihoot host) is a man named Lach who, legend says, came to town in the early ’80s aiming to be the next Dylan, but got kicked out of Folk City for being too punk. So he started putting on his own shows, attracting like-minded troubadours who equally admired the Sex Pistols and Woody Guthrie. Over the years, people like Beck, Ani DiFranco, Michelle Shocked, and King Missile showed up, and Lach and his growing family of misfit songwriters nurtured them when they were poor and unknown. The hype machines came a-visiting occasionally, but for the most part the antifolkers have just gone about their business underground, like happy little ants.
In his 2000 biography of Beck, British journalist Rob Jovanovic declared that antifolk died when Mr. Hansen left it, which was around 1990. That certainly isn’t true, but then again, not many outsiders, Jovanovic included, were hanging out on Avenue A back when current scene figureheads the Moldy Peaches thought up such galvanizing anthems as “Who’s Got the Crack,” so he can be forgiven for not predicting the movement’s resurgent vitality. Besides, not even Nostradamus could have predicted the Peaches. Yeah, right: A skinny white kid in a Robin Hood costume and a large black girl in a bunny suit singing about turds are gonna make the Pazz and Jop Top 40, and they’ll be a hit in England, too! Next you’re gonna tell me that Jay-Z’s sampling Paul Anka, and Common’s collaborating with Stereolab, and Justin Timberlake’s on the cover of Vibe.
But enough ink has been spilled over the Moldy Peaches, especially in these pages. What most people don’t know is that Adam Green and Kimya Dawson have lots of friends who make music called antifolk. (They also have friends that make music that sounds like Tom Petty, but that music is called the Strokes.) None of the antifolk is as great as “NYC’s Like a Graveyard” or “D2 Boyfriend,” though; there’s a reason the Peaches headline Irving Plaza while everybody else plays for peanuts.
That might change soon. Antifolk has been catching on in Europe—several Peachy friends have already completed successful headlining tours. And the release of two compilations highlighting the talents of Lach and his progeny just might jump-start a craze on these shores. One collection is the Adam-and-Kimya-curated Antifolk Vol. 1 on Rough Trade/Sanctuary, the same label that signed the Peaches. It’s a mixed bag of post-Beck wannabe-Dylans (Paleface, Jim Flynn), punk-as-fuck-if-it-wasn’t-for-acoustic-guitars (Joie Dead Blonde Girlfriend, Stipplicon), wispy forgettables who don’t deserve the “anti” (Patsy Grace, Turner Cody), and a stand-up comedian bitching about Hollywood (Rick Shapiro). The collection’s highlight is “Wee Ma Moo,” by crazy, hairy pranksters Dufus. It’s a rollicking pub-rock duel between electric and acoustic guitars and between a low, regular-guy voice and a high, silly-guy voice. The song also includes a brief reggae breakdown, and an intentionally unfinished ending. Lach contributes the previously released “Drinking Beers With Mom,” from 1997, which sounds so similar to the Peaches’ 2001 “Downloading Porn With Davo” that I’d suggest a lawsuit if I didn’t detect so much love between the parties.
(OK, maybe I lied before when I said that enough had been written about the Moldy Peaches. It is worth mentioning that both Kimya Dawson and Adam Green have solo efforts out, neither of which is as powerful as when they combine forces. But they’re still better than 99 percent of the other antifolk-artist albums I’ve heard. Kimya’s a much more skillful songwriter than her partner, but her Rough Trade/Sanctuary I’m Sorry That Sometimes I’m Mean sounds like the Peaches’ “Nothing Came Out” over and over again. She has a warm, inviting voice that might make you feel like her best friend. I’d recommend her self-released My Cute Fiend, available at solo shows and from www.kimyadawson.tk. It’s far more gripping than Mean, and it has the best 9-11 fallout song I’ve heard, give or take Sleater-Kinney’s pair and the Behoovers’ “Mary Lou.” On Garfield [also Rough Trade/Sanctuary], Adam’s going for the dorksexy alternaboy sound and look [peep those cheesecake photos, ladies!]. It’s the sort of lightweight affair that Beck could have made before Mellow Gold, had he spent his formative years in a nice, rich Westchester family that supplied a mother to sing on one song and a brother to play clarinet on two others. The knockout single is “Dance With Me,” a tender love ditty whose irresistible hook could bring the nation’s teens to their knees.)
Way more sonically diverse, and way more fun, than the Rough Trade/Sanctuary compilation is Call It What You Want: This Is Antifolk, put out by local label Olive Juice. First of all, it’s got a new Daniel Johnston song (actually a collaboration between Johnston and Jack Medicine under the name Hyperjinx Tricycle)—one of those heartbreakers that make me wanna take the fat lunatic home and care for him like a stray puppy. The album also serves up heaps of Peachy and non-Peachy goodness: Sensitive-boy singer-songwriters Major Matt Mason USA and Jeffrey Lewis lend less whiny and more touching tracks to this collection than its rival/counterpart, as do married acoustic-guitar-and-overturned-bucket-percussion duo Prewar Yardsale. Joie Dead Blonde Girlfriend rocks harder here. Laura Hoch sings a delicious revenge fantasy and says “fuck” very pleasantly. Seth Faergolzia of Dufus and some guy named Cockroach deliver soul-plunging laments whose grizzled death-wishes would sound great if they croaked like Tom Waits. American Anymen start the festivities off with bouncy synth-pop, and Jack Medicine, solo here like a circus freak making love to a carnival organ, brings them to a close.
My favorite track on Call It What You Want is Schwervon’s “Song for Weddings and Funerals,” a somber pledge of devotion that Yo La Tengo should wish they had written—a quiet, lovely oasis amid all this randy strumming and too-cool-for-school wordplay. And though Nan Turner and her longtime boyfriend, Matt Roth (the aforementioned Major Matt Mason USA, Olive Juice label head), didn’t sound quite so sad on their 2000 debut, Quick Frozen Small Yellow Cracker, I’m not complaining. The silly, simple beauty of that album’s sugary-and-tart domestic tableaux floored me. Making dinner, arguing over a donut, breaking into a former lover’s apartment, getting your schwerv on (take a wild guess what that means)—little pop dioramas crafted so tightly and rendered so innocently and brightly all those twee K records seem tarnished and sloppy by comparison. And that’s not even taking into account the leadoff track, “American Girl,” an epic I’d put up there in the coming-of-age pantheon with Big Star’s “Thirteen,” Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8r Boi,” and Dirty Dancing. Nan sings like the star of the sixth-grade play in front of her bedroom mirror, proud of her powerful little body and ready to engage in “high-risk criminal activity.” But all the boy can say in return is “Such a pretty girl! You’re so pretty!” (Matt delivers these lines in a pitch-perfect pimply-faced whine.) Nan responds with a frustrated series of screams and groans, as if to say, “I’m so much more complicated than that.”
Right now, Schwervon are my prime example of what makes antifolk worth investigating beyond the Moldy Peaches. They come off like a couple of good-hearted small-town kids who moved to the big city (he’s from Kansas, she’s from Washington State) to make their sweet, sexy songs in the face of the day jobs and the rent and the stupid cabaret laws and the nasty club owners and the oligarchic music industry in general. (For a particularly nasty indictment of the corporate world, see “Work Song,” the leadoff track on Nan’s biting, yet yummy, solo EP Leg Out.) Doesn’t hurt that they’re enclosed in a protective bubble of love and support—one where it sure would be nice to burst through, but nobody minds if they don’t. Whenever I listen to “American Girl,” I thank Lach and Beck and Adam and Kimya and all their friends for keeping this weird little scene alive.