Under the Influence – Anti-Folk

Folk has a long, tradition in the United States. It is the backbone of American music, with its branches leading to the growth of blues, country, Americana, and the singer/songwriter movement. While folk has been around for centuries, the essence of the aft form (a guitar and a voice) combines itself perfectly with the American Dream Ô, the idea that a singular voice can rise above the masses.

Folk as a fertile ground for burgeoning artists always has and always will be around. Someone, somewhere, right now is standing on a stage, guitar in hand, expressing their deepest emotions. The genre we will be looking at today takes the most basic of musical expression and warps it ever so slightly, and in the process give a shot in the arm to a beautiful tradition.

Folk music has been stagnant for several decades. The last great reinvention of the genre was 40 years ago, when artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez took folk’s history of socially conscious themes (popularized by singers such as Woody Guthrie), personal conflict (Leadbelly) and infusing separate offshoots as country and rock. When they arrived on the scene, along with The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary, the folk movement had the highest visibility in the 20th century.

Since that time, folk receded back to the coffeehouses and pubs; always the launching pad, never the vessel. The college radio revival led to a reemergence of folk in the ’80s (Ani Difranco and The Indigo Girls are just two example), but only on a regional level. Even the ’90s, during the peak of the Lilith-era female artists (led by Sarah McLaughlin and Jewel) the topics and structure of the form were the same, adding only a pop sensibility that married it to adult contemporary. There had been to shock to the system. That was about to change.

There was a growing scene in New York by a group of artists turning the aesthetics of folk on its head. Incorporating odd structures, more humor, and a heavy does of irony to the proceedings, these artists, such as Cheese on Bread, Calvin Johnson and Nellie McKay put a lot of effort in their material, even if it appeared they did not. Calling the scene anti-folk, the name implied they rejected many of folk’s long-standing traditions.

The initial darlings and poster children of the scene were The Moldy Peaches. The duo of Adam Green and Kimya Dawson wrote and performed songs such as “I Want to be a Hulkamaniac” and the mix tape single “Who’s Got the Crack.” A child like innocence and wonder was evident in the music, a factor sorely lacking folk’s “mature” and “serious” subject matter. Dawson, who worked at her family’s day care, was around children at all time and could accurately express that sense of astonishment.

But they weren’t all sunshine and bubble gum. Green took on the guise of a ten year old who just learned dirty words. Explicit language was rampant throughout the songs, leaving many to dismiss the band as a novelty act. Add to that the fact that they dressed up in costumes for their shows and many outsiders just dismissed them.

I first saw them open for the Strokes in Hartford, Connecticut in 2001. Getting at that venue early because I don’t go to Hartford often, I was caught off guard by the number of people in Superman and bunny outfits. Watching these dressed up weirdoes walking around inside and outside the venue, my first thought was, “this is one crazy town. They sure know how to party.” When the lights dimmed and the dressed up performers walked on stage as if on cure, I was shocked. I knew a couple of songs, but I had never seen them or what a show would be like. The show was fantastic, and from that day I have been a Moldy Peaches fan.

The reference points for the anti-folk scene are varied but are littered with iconoclasts. The two performers that stand out are Jonathan Richman and Daniel Johnston. Richman’s post Modern Lovers material is very mellow and based around an acoustic guitar, with light drumming. They are simple songs that embrace the wonder of the everyday, with titles such as “Ice Cream Man” and “Chewing Gum Wrapper,” but within that framework establishes a very mature understanding of the world that we live in.

Daniel Johnston is a singer/songwriter based out of Texas and an icon in the outsider music scene. The outsider music scene is column for another day, but in its most generalized definition, take it to mean “acquired taste.” Johnston’s backstory is long and fascinating (a documentary about his life, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is making the festival rounds now) but his struggle with mental illness has formed his own approach to songcraft. With his nasal delivery and awkward delivery, Johnston is able to move beyond his limitations and put his heart in every word he sings. Many feel he is the greatest songwriter of the past 25 years.

Not to be overlooked either is Beck‘s non-funky material. Though he first gained his notoriety with his hit “Loser” and later with the album Odelay, Beck was making a name for himself in the LA music scene, after spending some time from New York. His albums such “Stereopathic Soul Manure” and “One Foot in the Grave” are some of the first anti-folk albums to be distributed on a nationwide basis. No doubt some, though not many, checked out those albums based on his MTV exposure.

A listen to the left end of the dial will hear these artists connected with the original scene. Though the Peaches are no more, Green and Dawson perform solo, each one expanding on their input that made them unique. Green, in particular, plays raunchy rhyme schemes with an orchestra behind him to amp up the irony. Sufjan Stevens is receiving a lot of positive press for his work, specifically for his 50 states project. He will likely be the biggest name to come from the scene, though there are many other acts that could garner mainstream attention. These names include Regina Spektor, JAYMAY, and Final Fantasy. Other artists connected to the scene are CocoRosie, Devendra Banhart, and The Animal Collective, though they are more referred to the psych-folk movement which is, you guessed it, our next column.

What’s Going Around

My Morning Jacket
– In anticipation for the upcoming album, Z, I have been listening to the back catalog of the Jacket and am growing in excitement. Jim James has the purest voice in rock music. Though the influences over their career have gradually accumulated, the fact that I can say there is a band that mixes equal parts country-rock, chamber pop, and shoegazer with elements of psychadelica and prog is a testament to the true power of music to bring people together.

Antony and the Johnsons
-Regular readers know I have been singing the praises of this great act. I am happy to announce that their second album, I am a bird now, won the Mercury Music Prize, the highest musical award given in the UK. The British born Antony (who has lived in the states most of his life) received some flack, namely from the Kaiser Chiefs, for not living in England, but that’s just sour grapes. As I have said, a definite album of the year candidate, and no doubt will be a finalist for the shortlist music prize (the U.S. version of the Mercury).