What the hell is anti-folk anyway? The story, as it is most often told, is that the musical category originated in New York’s Lower East Side when singer-songwriter Lach couldn’t get a gig at some popular venues in Greenwich Village. He started a new scene at a spot called Fort and tagged it anti-folk. Most agree anti-folk adopts a punk ethic while building on the legacy of the folk-rock scene of the 60s. Of course, the problem is that it doesn’t give any credit to The Fugs, Lou Reed, The Godz, or The Holy Modal Rounders for starting ‘anti-folk’ well before the 1980s. Then again, these artists weren’t really against the folk scene; they were against bigger problems than access to clubs in New York City. Now, flash-forward to 2010 and we have The Bundles, who just released their debut on the seminal punk label K — they’ve also garnered the moniker “anti-folk supergroup.” But what the anti-folk tag really implies is a separate issue that I think should be explored. Examining this new Bundles record is the perfect opportunity.
The Bundles has been almost a full decade in the making. The group formed in the early part of the new millennium and, at that time, wrote half of the material on their self-titled debut with Kimya Dawson and Jeffrey Lewis forming the core. Later, a fuller band was created by adding Jack Lewis on bass and Anders Griffin on drums, mostly for the live show. Karl Blau, originally brought in to engineer the band at Dub Narcotic, joined too. It is a formidable roster, all spiffed and ready to play some seriously impish music. Although the supergroup tag is certainly apropos given the stature of the contributors, this is no Fantômas, Velvet Revolver, or Chickenfoot; this band does not rock so much as it jumps, giggles, and sleeps over in adult-sized footed pajamas. It has an irreverent and juvenile sensibility combined with introspective musical journaling, buffeted at times by complex vocal harmonies and other times by raw simple approaches.
This record is partially devoted to the punk scene, who should sop it up like so many vegan biscuit and nutritional yeast gravy plates (songs with lines like “the water that I dumpstered” make sense to a pretty small but loyal set of society), but it’s not quite anti-establishment. Tracks like “Be Yourself” are drowning in their own sentimentality, a love song crusty with crystallized sugar (e.g., grandma candy). While the genesis of anti-folk was due to the need for a non-pretentious, non-exclusive scene in the Lower East Side, anti-folk in this case seems largely aesthetic. Dawson has flirted with mainstream appeal since the Juno soundtrack success, and if there’s anything that makes you seem less than anti-anything, it’s climbing to number eight on the Billboard 200. It seems a little wild to be classifying a band that writes a ditty about tangled braces and having tungsten in your mouth (“Metal Mouth”) in the same sphere as the artists grinding it out in the black block singing about corporate pigs and blowing up SUVs.
But there’s always room for a little goofiness within the rebellious spirit of punk, as if all that railing against corporate culture and the state begets the desire to get silly every once in a while. While the album vacillates frequently between tenderness and daffiness, it doesn’t overdo it. In fact, by the time it wraps up, you’ll wonder where the time went. This is clearly a testament to the power of these five artist to use their individual talents to create a whole that is just what it needs to be: homey, sweet, and interesting. Anti-folk or not, the band exudes confidence and camaraderie, and The Bundles surely won’t disappoint their longtime fans. After all, if you already enjoy snarky, cute, and raw anti-music and haven’t discovered Dawson or Lewis, then what the hell have you been listening to? Hopefully not Jewel.