For all the talk about the "New York scene" these days, the truth is that there are actually many scenes going on all at the same time. That's what you'd expect in a city of eight million people, of course -- even leaving aside the obvious distinctions (hip-hoppers vs. jazzbos vs. art-noise rockers vs. new-new-wavers, etc.), artists sort themselves out by neighborhood, venue, musical affinity, influences, etc. And that means the mini-scenes that evolve can be remarkably collegial and cohesive.
The Antifolk Vol. 1 compilation is a document of just such a scene, the punky singer-songwriter crowd that gathers for Monday night "Antihoots" at Sidewalk Café in Alphabet City. It's a family of sorts -- and while they might like to pretend otherwise, the big sister and brother of this rag-tag bunch are undeniably Kimya Dawson and Adam Green of the Moldy Peaches. It's not just that Dawson and Green (who each contributes one solo track) compiled the CD. Their raw nursery rhyme aesthetic, with its sing-along melodies, left-field absurdity and casual profanity, is the touchstone for most of the 20 artists here. Few of the offerings live up to the comic-tragic standards of the Moldy Peaches' weirdly lovable 2001 debut, but most are minor pleasures on their own terms.
The songs fall roughly into two camps, joke ones and serious ones. But a lot of the jokes have an edge, and even the serious ones can be funny. You can laugh at the title of Jeffrey Lewis' "You Don't Have to Be a Scientist to Do Experiments on Your Own Heart", but the song is plaintively sincere. Diane Cluck's haunting "Monte Carlo" may be the loveliest track on the album, but it's full of sardonic one-liners. The deliberately limited instrumentation (mostly acoustic guitars, with only a couple of full-band songs) can't help bringing to mind obvious references: Dylan on Jim Flynn's "Smokescreen a Capella Techno Blues" and Brer Brian's "Harlem '99", the Violent Femmes on Lach's "Drinking Beers With Mom", Beck on Paleface's "Say What You Want".
In general, the songwriting is better than the singing, and the singing is better than the playing and production -- but then, the rattletrap arrangements and homegrown tape hiss are part of the offhand appeal. The flattened vocals can be a little wearing, which is why the real singers stand out (Diane Cluck, Grey Revell, Patsy Grace). Dawson and Green remain in something of a class by themselves -- the oddball lilt of each of their songs makes it easy to see why they were the ones to score first. In particular, Dawson's enigmatic "I'm Fine" (which is also on her solo CD Knock, Knock Who?) is as troubling as it is endearing.
The "antifolk" tag is a little misleading. Sure, the attitude owes a lot to punk, but punk also owed more than it knew to the scuzzier side of the '60s folk revival (for proof, check out Ramblin' Jack Elliott's 1961 duet with Bob Dylan on Eric Von Schmidt's "Acne", in which the lovesick teenage narrator plans to kill his parents with a shotgun). The 20-something smart-asses at the Sidewalk Café are carrying on more traditions than they're breaking. Good for them, and lucky for us. It's a New York scene worth preserving.