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Sing for the laughter, sing for the tears: Kimya Dawson at Valentine’s. Photo by: Joe Putrock

A Soft-Rock Problem
By John Brodeur

Kimya Dawson, Paleface
Valentine’s, March 1

The antifolk movement was born in New York City in the early 1990s as both a response to and commentary on the traditional definition of folk music and the loud-guys-with- guitars aesthetic that dominated the musical landscape at the time. Sure, antifolk and folk looked an awful lot alike on paper, what with all the acoustic guitars and earnest lyrics and other such trappings, but this generation was concerned with adding new edginess and muscle to the old formula. Not to mention a preoccupation with quirky, free-associative lyrics and vulgarity—those old folkies would never say “fuck,” after all.

While antifolk spawned a fair amount of margin-walking artists who never quite broke outside the confines of the scene’s home turf, the dynamic duo of Kimya Dawson and Adam Green—the Moldy Peaches, that is—scored big with an indie-rock crowd that had been wondering what a collaboration between Beat Happening and Ween might sound like. Combining a near-complete lack of instrumental prowess, lackadaisical vocals, the lowest of lo-fi recordings and some seriously pottymouthed prose, the Peaches earned a great deal of attention for what was, in essence, an overblown eighth-grade toilet joke. But they wear costumes, and everyone loves costumes, right? Dawson and Green have continued to make music outside of the Peaches, with Dawson exploring some decidedly personal issues on her three solo records (Green stuck with the goofy stuff), and she brought her songs of joylessness to Albany this week.

“I’m a mental patient, it’s true,” Dawson half-teasingly confessed, late in her Monday night set at Valentine’s. Part of Dawson’s appeal is that she really puts it all out there. One glance at her online LiveJournal will provide details on just about everything that is going on in her life, and her antidepressant-fueled folk-rock sounds like an extended therapy session. This super-confessional, keep-your-audience-close approach certainly has its merits—the 50 or 60 fans who turned out stood rapt for Dawson’s entire 60-minute-or-so set and, in all honesty, the girl positively oozed authenticity throughout—but from an outsider’s point of view, the whole affair felt like a feature-length open-mic performance-art piece.

Dawson looks like what might have happened had Olivia from The Cosby Show run away from home and couch-surfed through the East Village, then reemerged as a dreadlocked, tattooed version of Lili Taylor’s character in Say Anything. She sat center-stage, barely looking up from the microphone or stopping to crack a smile, even during impromptu a cappella renditions of ’80s power ballads like “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “Open Arms”—“I’ve got a soft-rock problem,” she revealed, as if it were some kind of affliction—displaying a reservation that seemed to betray her cartoonish façade.

To Dawson’s credit, she has a very distinct handle on how to romanticize depression and self-loathing. She routinely drops phrases like “My heart is on my sleeve, my head is in the sand” (“Chemistry”), “Seven walls go up for every one wall that comes down” (“Hadlock Padlock”), and “the part of me that knows I never cared for being cool” (“Being Cool”) like so many knife wounds to the heart. Unfortunately, the tinny and treble-drenched sound mix was a nightmarish assault of high mids, rendering her wavering, breathy vocals and finger-strummed guitar nearly inaudible from 20 feet away. Overall, the set was not so much anticlimactic as it was lacking a discernable climax. By the time she closed with “The Beer” from her My Cute Fiend Sweet Princess LP, it felt like she had played about 400 songs, with none of them particularly standing out from the rest. Except those power ballads. Those songs are still awesome.

Legendary antifolk troubadour Paleface—perhaps only legendary by virtue of longevity—opened with a great set of bluesy funk-folk, drawn largely from his latest album, Bottlefed. With cheesy keyboards and vintage beats provided by his partner, Taro (with help from a Roland Dr. Groove drum machine), Paleface kicked out the jams early-Beck-style, knocking down Mellow Gold-worthy couplets like “Can’t get it right, but I’m into the beat like a 10-story building on a dead-end street,” and, judging by the audience reaction, earned himself a bunch of new fans. They even managed to egg him on to play an encore, which is more than the headliner pulled off.

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