Mike Doughty has got to have one of the strangest relationships to his back catalog that I’ve ever seen. Soul Coughing’s abrupt split in 2000 came on the heels of their biggest hit “Circles”, right as they were becoming a household name. Though perhaps reluctant to explain at the time why, over the years it became clear that Doughty was really, really not happy, that Soul Coughing had gotten away from him, and he was starting to intensely dislike his bandmates. This kind of friction is not exactly uncommon among these kinds of bands, but Doughty’s bitterness has reached seemingly impossible levels – once his solo catalog got big enough, he stopped playing Soul Coughing songs altogether, actively worked to block a future wave of Soul Coughing live albums, and lately has taken every available opportunity to trash talk his former band. His 2012 memoir The Book of Drugs is like a laundry list of every single thing his bandmates did to piss him off, often devoid of any sort of context, painting them as cartoonishly evil characters that would stop at nothing to make him feel bad about himself. This is twelve years after the split, by the way. Clearly this band did a number on him.
This is unfortunate, because as I pointed out a couple weeks ago, Soul Coughing’s music still holds up pretty well. It was also unfortunate for Doughty, who woke up from the split only to find that despite his constant urging that his bandmates were living off his coattails, he really wasn’t bigger than Soul Coughing. He had a minimal and brief solo album called Skittish, but nobody wanted to release it, so he decided to strike out on his own, touring the country and selling burned copies at his shows. All but the most hardcore Soul Coughing fans were unaware that he was doing this. A lot of people assumed he had overdosed, actually a pretty good guess considering what he was pumping into his body on a daily basis. And yet, he persevered – after a chance encounter with Dave Mathews in 2004, he wound up scoring a record deal with ATO, which promptly put out Skittish and his ’03 EP Rockity Roll together as a 2-fer (and more). Those interested in Doughty’s work past-Soul Coughing ought to look there first. Because things got a little bumpy from there.
Haughty Melodic, released in 2005, was supposed to make Mike Doughty a star. Consisting mostly of songs that he had been working out during the prior few years (the official 2002 bootleg Smofe + Smang featured a lot of these songs, performed solo, often missing verses and bridges), Haughty rather blatantly grabs for mass appeal. There was a certain starkness to his prior solo work – Skittish was a true solo album, with just Doughty and his guitar, and while Rockity Roll added some keyboards and drum machines, it was clearly a one-man production. But Haughty Melodic feels like a jam-band record; while Doughty is front and center, it feels like there are a half-dozen other musicians in the room at all times, playing electric piano, congas, blazing guitars, horns, flutes, strings, banjos, whatever – all in addition to the rhythm section, background singers, and of course Doughty himself.
Of course, none of this is necessary – most of these songs worked just fine on Smofe + Smang. But this is Doughty’s record, and for all the instrumentation he throws on here, none of it distracts from the man himself. The players all seem faceless, sometimes sampled, and the guest vocalists do not have a whole lot of personality; there’s a certain sweetness to bringing in Dave Matthews for “Tremendous Brunettes” though their voices are so similar that there really is not a point to it (other than being able to say that Dave Matthews is on your album). With Soul Coughing, Doughty had three musicians who put their own personal stamp on everything; people who turned a song like “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” into something truly unique (if you hear Doughty play this acoustically, you can hear that it’s quite similar to most of his other songs). With Haughty Melodic you don’t really get that; the sound is full and goes down well, but it’s hard to remember anything outside of the song itself. In fact when I added “horns” to the list above I had to go back and think – “were there really horns on here?”. Alas, there was, way in the background on the first track. It’s that kind of album.
No doubt this did not go down well with Doughty’s longtime fans. Soul Coughing as a band was eccentric and very musical, more about exploration than it was about the songs (much to Doughty’s chagrin, it turns out). Mike Doughty solo, at least before this album, was often just about the songs; particularly the way Doughty stabs at his guitar, and the starkness and poetry behind every line. Haughty doesn’t really hit either mark; it’s fun and lightweight, and for the first time in his career, Doughty wound up sounding like everyone else. These songs were intended to be hits – hits much like “Circles”, which could put Doughty on the map and finally help him realize the status he deserved.
Still, for what it is…Haughty Melodic is a good album, particularly for summer (which will get here any day now). The songs are often wistful and have more than a little twinge of sadness to them, but they’re often breezy, catchy, and somewhat dull – there’s not a whole lot of edge here, and Doughty’s limited bag of tricks exhausts itself before the record is half over. Producer Dan Wilson (of Semisonic semi-fame) does not really help much, giving everything a professional but risk-averse sheen that takes a lot of air out of the songs. This new Doughty is under control – now in his 30’s and several years sober, there’s little of the spontaneity that marked his Soul Coughing work. New Doughty is hip like old Doughty, but he’s way more self-conscious. New Doughty wouldn’t be caught dead karate chopping into the air or raising his voice at inopportune moments like old Doughty would. Instead he’s just this guy, tattooed and bespectacled, always staring into space, waving his head around while he sings, raising an eyebrow as the world spins around him. Sure, there’s emotion in the lyric, but Doughty himself is now expressionless, looking halfway amused and halfway annoyed. And Haughty Melodic is his vehicle; twelve songs that fit perfectly into the man’s framework, all with well-thought out hooks and choruses and sentimental lyrics. The extremely mixed reviews of this were confusing; I do not understand how anyone could out-and-out hate this. But then again…
If there’s one thing that sucks about being Mike, it’s that he’s always living in the shadow of his former band, something which obviously irks him greatly. He is now 14 years into his solo career, and has released five original studio albums in addition to several EPs, live albums, and an album of covers. Outside of a couple of minor successes – “Looking at the World From the Bottom of a Well” from this album, “27 Jennifers” from the next one, and the occasional appearance on something like the Veronica Mars soundtrack – Doughty has still not found his breakthrough, the thing that will finally stop him from always being referred to as the “ex-Soul Coughing frontman”. Last year, he started a PledgeMusic campaign to fund a collection of Soul Coughing covers, and it wound up being completely funded in less than 24 hours. This year, he’s funding a new album of songs via the same route, and there seems to be much less interest, despite offering up three pages of original, handwritten lyrics from old Soul Coughing songs as an incentive. Of course none of this is really out of whack for the once-famous dude turned solo, though there is something a little unsavory about it when the dude has spent so many years bitching at the fans who brought up his former band.
There was a time, though, when Haughty Melodic seemed like it was going to make him a name again. As I recall basically every publication reviewed it and I even remember seeing the “Looking at the World from the Bottom of the Well” video once or twice (another song from this, “I Hear the Bells”, seems to be a regular XM alt-rock fixture). And really, why not? Haughty is not a great album, but it’s plenty good, and there’s more effort given to the songwriting than there ever was on Soul Coughing (which, I have argued, is a big part of what made SC so great). Alas, he seemed to immediately lose his audience upon his next album, Golden Delicious; actually not so bad, but way poppier than even this, and also the final nail in the coffin for anyone who thought the freewheelin’ Doughty of El Oso was ever coming back. It’s too bad, since his 2009 album Sad Man, Happy Man was actually quite good, maybe even great – paring things down to himself, a cellist, and only minimal accompaniment seemed to really let him finally focus on the things he does best. This is the frustrating thing about Mike – he’s proven the ability to be brilliant (his first solo album Skittish is really a one-of-a-kind listen), but he often tries to do too much, and as my Quietus review of his Soul Coughing covers disc points out, when he’s trying to make beats or go too off-the-wall he frequently shows that he just has no clue what he’s doing. And yet, it’s tough to go too hard on music this enjoyable – lots of the songs on Haughty Melodic hit the right buttons. He’ll have a new album out this year titled Stellar Motel and sure enough I will buy it. You never know which Mike is going to show up.