This video tells you everything you need to know about Soul Coughing. It begins with a wonky groove piece – Doughty adlibs some vocals, then starts mouthing along to some cartoon samples (this piece would eventually be released on De Gli Antoni’s solo album). After a minute or so of this, they launch into “Screenwriter’s Blues”, where you can see the band getting into their element. The rhythm section of Yuval Gabay (drums) and Sebastian Stienberg (bass) are locked in – these kind of deep, repetitive grooves would be one of their defining qualities. Mark de Gli Antoni (keyboards) plays the underpinning melody and spins off a host of disjointed samples. Then you’ve got lead singer and guitar player Mike Doughty – he’s not playing guitar here, instead spitting out lyrics that lie somewhere between hipster poetry and free-association nonsense (first line: “exits to freeways twisted like knots on the fingers/jewels cleaving skin between…*exaggerated pause*…breasts”). Another thing – the band is clearly high as balls right now. This is another one of their defining qualities. Doughty takes drags on his cigarette between lines, karate chops into the air, and throws his hands all over the place. Stienberg claws at his neck; he’s probably on pills. Certainly there is something terminally uncool about all of this; I know at least Doughty would be mortified to see this today. But the music is also something totally unique; nobody else could sound like this.
Soul Coughing, if you remember, were perhaps the quintessence of the experimental 90’s alt-rock group; they blended together genres on the fly and clearly listened to a lot of hip-hop. They managed a couple of big hits (“Super Bon Bon” and “Circles”, neither of which were on this album) and broke up at the height of their popularity at the end of the decade for reasons that nobody understood at the time. Nowadays, Doughty seemingly can’t shut up about it – this is a band that pulled in many directions at once, and you can hear all four members seemingly fighting for space on nearly every one of their songs. Clearly there were a few arguments in the studio, though upon further reflection, these guys just didn’t get along, period.
Still – what a band they were. Gabay and Stienberg were an incredible and tight rhythm section; Stienberg played an upright with a booming sound, while Gabay played these sort of thick, funky grooves that resemble Jaki Liebezeit in his prime. You’ve got Mark De Gli Antoni, who not only plays keyboards, but also fills the record with samples; they mostly seem to be culled from 50 year-old records, home recordings, or Faust-like experiments in recording. And then there’s Mike Doughty; he of the monotone voice and bizarre lyricisms, filling the album with lines that make no sense but do manage to sound good (“Normalize the signal and you’re bangin on freon/paleolithic eon/put the fake goatee on”). Put it all together and you’ve got four wildcards; four guys playing like they are the lead, which for a band of four is like…well, here’s an album that I’d put in my personal top 50, so who am I to say?
The beauty of Soul Coughing was in the simplicity. After their breakup, Doughty went on something of a crusade, incredibly bitter at the sole fact that every song Soul Coughing did was credited to all four rather than Doughty alone, the guy who wrote all the “song bits” (his words, not mine). It’s kind of funny, since the joint credit was one of the things that I always thought was cool about the band – if you isolate the “song bits”, as in the chords and the vocal line…well, a lot of these songs would sound pretty much the same. Doughty’s bag of tricks is almost ridiculously shallow (at least, for a guy who I consider to be a pretty good songwriter); nearly every song he writes has some kind of jangly groove or stutter-stop in the melody, and they’re almost all built around one of three chord progressions. But such loose and open-ended structures allowed the band to do all sorts of wonderful things. Opening track “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” opens with a jazzy, walking bass line that transforms the tune into something truly special. “Blue-Eyed Devil” gets a busy breakdance groove thanks to Yuval Gabay. “Moon Sammy” goes into lounge and hip-hop at once. Meanwhile, Mark De Gli Antoni is everywhere, filling every available crevice with noise, never allowing the listener to get too settled in. Mostly, it seems to be samples from old big band or jazz recordings, but he also does a lot of unsettling sound manipulation (the slowed down seagull noises on “Sugar Free Jazz”, or the distorted vocals on “City of Motors” and “Mr. Bitterness”). Doughty gives the band just enough to do their thing over.
That spirit is all over the album; the spirit of sampling, of dropping in things that don’t belong. Doughty’s lyrics very much reflect this – you can picture him stumbling around at 2 AM, blasted out of his mind on molly, carousing among the drunks, desperately trying to remember disjointed snippets of blurred conversation that he could later adapt in his lyrics. The lines here often don’t make any sense, but they’re the sort of things the 15 year-old me would jot down in a notebook over and over during a boring geometry class – “Schools he bombs, he bombs”, “I absorb trust like a love rhombus”, “You keep-a knocking but you can’t come in”, “Spoon to the lighter to the lighter to the gun”, “Gone savage for teenagers who are aesthetically pleasing, in other words…fly”, “Fossilize apostle and I comb it with the rake”…better stop now before I quote the whole damn album. It seems like he’s always toeing the line between profundity and nonsense (“The radioman says it is 5 AM and the sun has charred the other side of the world and come back to us – and painted the smoke over our heads an imperial violet”), not caring where exactly he lands, more concerned with pairing together words that sound right together than ones that say something coherent. It’s this which is Doughty’s real contribution to the band – well, that plus his delivery, which emphasizes the scattershot nature of the words (check out the end of “Screenwriter’s Blues”, where Doughty tries to figure out how many different ways you can intone the word “listening”).
Of course there is very some self-consciously wacky behavior here. Today, Doughty complains about how hard they tried to be alternative and confrontational – there’s almost a sense that the band mixed things up just because they could, as though the goal was to get people to remark about how far out and unique they were. That they wanted to be weirder and more cosmic than they actually were. I think that’s a fair criticism, one that especially applies to Doughty, whose solo work much more conventional, despite the songs largely being the same. In reality, they were exactly what they were – three talented, veteran musicians who all wanted to push the boundaries of what such a band was capable of, and a young, drugged out frontman who didn’t know how to stop them from doing just that. There’s no doubt that these guys dreamt of stardom – Doughty always admired (and was a little jealous of) Jeff Buckley and wanted the same success of his own. The mid-90’s were a time when a band like this really could have made it big – Beck and the Beastie Boys sold millions blending up genres, and Soul Coughing had the rhythm section to back it up.
And so, what of Ruby Vroom? 20 years on, it still sounds fresh. Perhaps it didn’t include either of SC’s big hits, but most of their well-known material is on here. There’s “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago”, with its thumping bassline, the impossibly thick rave-up of “Mr. Bitterness”, the “Powerhouse”-sampling “Bus to Beezlebub”, the jangly “Blue-eyed Devil”, and the almost sickly sweet “Janine”, a duet with a telephone message (really!). Even the odder stuff hits – “Casiotone Nation”, with its collage of sound effects, the surreal, dream-like “Sugar Free Jazz”, the twisted mantra of “Down to This”, the bizarre noir of “City of Motors”. They certainly had a lot of material to cull from – fan-made compilations show off numerous compositions that were perhaps improvised on the spot, several of which would get reworked into the songs you hear on the albums. Perhaps this is a blasphemous comparison, but they remind me a lot of Can – killer rhythm section, tons of improvisation, brilliant sound effects, and a wild frontman who embodied the chaos of the music. Bands like this don’t come around often – we got two more albums, 1996’s Irresistible Bliss and 1998’s El Oso, but they split soon after. Doughty continues a solo career to this day, but it sure as hell ain’t Soul Coughing. More on that later.