Thursday, December 8, 2005

Je suis l'antifolk!!

If you haven't lived on the Lower East Side of New York City, or some places in London, there's a good chance you've never heard of antifolk. I'm not going to try to define it here, but there's a decade-old debate that surfaced recently on the Olive Juice Messageboard when a French filmmaker invited people to submit stuff for a documentary on antifolk. I had written the following list to be published last year in Anti-Up, an antifolk magazine, but as happens to many scene 'zines, the one-man publishing firm got busy and hasn't been heard from recently. I already posted this over on the OJ Messageboard, but it can't hurt to enlighten the Myspace masses as well. Heathen though you may be.

Here are eight perfect albums to help define the undefinable antifolk. To preface, let's address the elements of album perfection. Good records qua albums are rare. A collection of songs is one thing, a concept album is another, but we’re talking about the perfect album — that list of songs, tied to each other in soul, which complete an integral phonic experience from start to finish. Perfect albums aren’t a bunch of hits tacked together. Nor does a perfect album have that song you always skip. Perfect albums take you from one place to another in creative succession until the record ends and you say, Damn…

I’ve got to do that again.

These criteria winnow the field to selections like Abbey Road, Led Zeppelin IV, Thriller (admit it), Nevermind, OK Computer, and others that carry the same confluence of time, place, and perfection. But these aren’t antifolk albums. Perfect antifolk albums surface even less frequently than perfect mass-market releases for a number of reasons: in a niche genre like this, fewer artists exist to attempt an antifolk masterpiece; the genre prides itself on taking risks and experimenting heavily, which can come off as sublime or disposable; because antifolk is underground by nature, some of the best work around never gets heard. Moreover, antifolk artists aren’t label-paid cash cows who have the luxury of composing all day. Most write to escape the day jobs they take to subsist as artists. This means even some of the finest antifolk composers haven’t yet recorded their piece de triomphe.

Finally, there’s the eternal question, What is antifolk? In defining a genre, you better understand the genre. Obviously the antifolk scene sports some styles that don’t really fit the bill, but are included as part of the community. In considering these albums, though, we’re talking about the essence of antifolk:

• Raw, lo-fi style, substance, attitude, technique
• Punk and folk-blues roots, amplified or acoustic
• Songwriting with a soul of protest or revolt

These elements best define antifolk, even if you find them in artists from other genres. This is what makes antifolk so crucial. You can look at Kurt Cobain covering Leadbelly’s “Black Girl” and say: that’s antifolk. Or Dave Van Ronk, who fingerpicked a Guild and sang, “All the whores are gonna drop their drawers and say, there goes the man who mugged Santa Claus…” — antifolk. Or even Fiona Apple, when she sings, “Hunger hurts, but starving works when it costs too much to love…” — antifolk.

Antifolk is a streak that runs deep in some artists. And on these eight albums, in chronological order, it runs deepest.

Bob Dylan: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963
The antifolk template. Dylan wrote 11 of 13 songs on this album, compared to two of 13 on his first release a year earlier. From angry protest on "Masters of War" to dead-pan humor on "I Shall Be Free" and fauvist word-paintings on "A Hard Rain's A-gonna Fall", Dylan cast the antifolk rock-star mold with Freewheelin’. He even predicts four decades of hipsters downing pop music in "Talking World War III Blues" when he sings, "Turned on my record player... it was Rockaday Johnny singing, 'Tell your ma, tell you pa, our love's a-gonna grow, hoo-ah, hoo-ah." The album is endlessly quotable and spawned covers that still pay the man well. He didn’t have the honey-tongued sweetness of ’60s commercial folk, but he cribbed their melodies, channeled the rawness of original folk influences and at age 22 became a folk hero. It’s safe to say 120f antifolk artists start out wanting to be Bob Dylan.

Paleface: Paleface, 1991
The amazing debut from the Lower East Side stalwart, this album drips protest, to say nothing of sarcasm, irony, and disillusion. The young Paleface sang out from Loisaida, “You can say what you want, and you can think what you want, and you can live in a dream if you want.” Heading into the most prosperous decade of American Babylon, it rang true right through 9/11. Spare instrumentation and hard-strummed acoustic lay the foundation for Paleface’s antifolk style, and his penchant for saturated reverb lends a tangible presence to his words throughout.

Beck: One foot in the grave, 1994
After the success of Loser and subsequent typing as slacker and one-hit wonder, wunderkind Beck rounded out his underground credibility with a release on K Records. The album speaks only in antifolk terms: an out-of-tune, fingerpicked Skip James cover kicks it off and is followed by a showcase of raw stylings in electric and acoustic, punk and folk, noise and nuance. Every musical mistake on this record — and there are many — is forgiven for being so consistent with the sum total. This casual, intentionally ragged style set a standard for antifolk. “I know, I know,” Beck sings, “it’s the positive people, running from their time, looking for some feeling.”

Ani DiFranco: Out of Range, 1994
Heading in the opposite direction of one-take production ethic, Ani DiFranco’s sixth solo effort showed how antifolk looks with a little polish. While still raw in essence and attitude, Out of Range packages her anger in a more palatable and more potent way that helped it reach a wider audience. Thus when the album kicks off buttery smooth with "Buildings and Bridges", barbs like “We are made to fight / and and talk and fight again / and sit around and laugh until we choke” cut deeper when nestled into such a pretty groove. The title track embodies the quintessential Ani in guitar and vocal stylings, performed with a perfection not typical to a genre which prides itself on rendering brilliance with a facile technique.

Mike iLL: The Seduction of Sarah Sahonie, 1999
A picture of the sordid underbelly of urban culture, Sarah Sahonie is the penultimate antifolk opera. For just under an hour, it’s just Mike iLL, his rickety amplified Danelectro and his foot-stomp, telling the story of a disaffected small-town girl, sometimes in the first-person. The album works a miracle by foregoing direct narrative, tying one song to the next instead by theme, style, and beautiful songcraft. The ultimate effect projects the listener into the East Village, walking the streets with Mike, looking for a score. From rebellion to burlesque, morality tale, and haunting regret, this album rocks well beyond its one-man show. And he catches a primary motivator driving antifolk people to New York City in "Precious Lil' Town": "I need a reason to start these days, but I don't need no reason to ge-ge-ge-ge-get out of this place."

The Moldy Peaches: The Moldy Peaches, 2000
Whether or not you dig their garbage-rock style, one must concede that the Peaches molded a consummate antifolk album with their eponymous debut. With lyrics to make a scene ’zine gush laid over postmodern jams, the Peaches rock super slop for 19 songs in 46 minutes. Whenever they verge on pure devolution, they play something poignant enough to avoid seeming self-reflexive when they sing, “who mistook that crap for genius?” The album’s a bawdy classic, true to its ironic soul, begging you to take them seriously by not taking them too seriously.

Brer Brian: The Man with the Artichoke Heart, 2001
Channeling a healthy respect for both God and science fiction, Brer Brian spiked a selection of otherworldly compositions with two busking standards and a wholesome rendition of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow". The album’s primary revolt is effectively against the bread-and-butter disillusion that nourishes so many contemporary songwriters. Brer vents whatever rage he has through abstract compositions like Sci-fi revenge fantasy, embellishing them with a gifted musicality. It’s rough in all the right places and cheerful in its dissent, inviting everyone more to party than protest. Brer almost sounds happy as he sings, “I only hear the sound of the soil raining down on the day that I ran out of time.”

The Drive-by Proposals: The Drive-by Proposals, 2002
Perhaps the most underexposed stars of the Lower East Side, Ish Marquez and Spencer Chakedis comprise the Drive-by Proposals. Their premier effort as a team — was it even released? — rings of primeval heartache, soul revolt, and unrelenting bitterness. Marquez and Chakedis are antifolk innovators who rock passion over a variety of jangly styles, mixing power chords and grunge with rhythm and blues. And true to antifolk style, they give up a few covers, most notably Patsy Cline’s Strange. When you hear Ish explode into Much Ado About Nada with a “Whul YEAH!”, you can’t help but ask yourself where the Drive-by Proposals have been all your life.

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