Tag Archives: Mike Doughty

20 YEARS ON: Mike Doughty – The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns (2016) / Soul Coughing – Irresistible Bliss (1996)

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“The more he releases, the more convinced I become that Mike Doughty has wrung the most greatness from the smallest amount of songwriting diversity of any artist since the Ramones.” – a quote from my man Chris Williams, whose Soul Coughing reviews convinced me to check out the band long ago.  As far as compliments go it’s about as backhanded as they come, but I’d wager that Doughty probably feels this way about himself.  The man approaches his solo career the same way one might in an office job when eying a promotion; always trying to put his foot out there and expand his horizons, attempting to stand out in the densely populated world of four-chord acoustic head-swingers, either by branching out into new, unexpected areas, or by finding new ways to put his music out there.  In the last decade, he’s written a musical, released a cut-n-paste EDM album, done a living room tour, sold personalized songs recorded directly onto tape recorders, ran three successful crowdfunding campaigns, written a book, released a hip-hop album, attended a songwriting camp, recorded three albums worth of Soul Coughing material, ran a subscription service, made an album of covers, and put out an EP of him literally busking in the street.  All this in between a cycle of relatively normal albums and tours.  Like him or not, the man’s got a pretty solid work ethic.

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Little Critters: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Cake, Mike Doughty

Ryuichi Sakamoto – Works I-CM (2002)
Since I’ve already done a Hosono and a Takahashi album here, I figure it was only a matter of time before I got a Sakamoto one in. Problem is I haven’t really been listening to much Sakamoto lately, as there have been so many soundtracks and collaborations and other assorted compilations that I don’t really know what is what anymore. Furthermore, I’m a little more picky with him. Works I-CM is the one album of his I’ve been playing a lot lately, and it’s not an album proper, but rather a compilation of music that he did for commercials between 1982 and 1984. If you’re a fan this should make your ears perk up a little, as 82-84 was a particularly fertile period for Sakamoto, and as you may expect this album has several gems on it. In fact it probably warrants its own feature on Critter Jams, but the fact that all the songs (outside of “Expo 85”) have Japanese titles make it difficult to talk about.

Essentially this is 50 minutes, spanning 19 tracks, many of which are quite short. Most of this sounds somewhere between his crystalline Naughty Boys work and Ongaku Zukan. The first track is “About You” from the latter, originally written for a Life Insurance company. The others are generally unavailable elsewhere, though pieces of them sometimes show up on later compositions. Akiko Yano appears on a number of them. None of these pieces are very sophisticated, but they do sound good (many use the same shimmering synth tones that were so apparent on Naughty Boys). I’ve been down on RS’s pop sense in the past; I feel that on some releases he feels he has to dumb himself down too much. But the music here is crisp, effortless, and fun. Many of the pieces just loop the same jingles over and over again; I have no idea why the ten-minute track is so long, but everything is a breezy listen so you don’t much mind the repetition. Sometimes it reminds me of leaving the Nintendo 64 on a menu screen for too long. It sounds like a lot of these tracks intended to eventually get vocals over the top, but the instrumentals are good on their own.

Overall the experience is not unlike Hosono’s excellent Coincidental Music; not as adventurous but it’s brisk and many of the pieces are quite interesting. Apparently there is another collection called Works II – TV and Inst. which I believe is more of the same.

Cake – Live From the Crystal Palace (2014) (vinyl only)
This and the next one sort of go together. Cake are not really a band I listen to anymore, but I loved them so much as a teenager that I figure I owe it to myself to check out their new stuff. I believe we’ve been hearing about this album for like…six years now, so if nothing else it’s kind of cemented some sort of legendary status in my mind. That said, I’ve heard for a long time that Cake weren’t exactly a great live act and this disc proves it. I have always wanted to go to a show, as their songs are wonderfully easy to sing (or shout) along to, but the constant tales of John McCrea’s pissy and depressing demeanor eventually turned me off. Simply put, I dig the guy’s music and I’m sure he’s super intelligent, but I would imagine that spending an evening with the dude would just be a massive bummer. That’s kind of ironic, as Cake’s music is usually a lot of fun.

As for the album – I guess it wasn’t really worth waiting for. The performance itself is nearly a decade old by this point, so you almost wonder why they released it at all. Cake’s studio music always had a spontaneous atmosphere to it and quite frankly they don’t sound a lot different live. Occasionally DiFiore (trumpet) will blast out a new line or something but there’s not a lot of excitement here; they have trouble really getting into a groove, as there are a lot of timing issues between instruments. They certainly don’t sound like a band that’s been together for over a decade. Still, good to revisit some of these tunes and I may just break out those first four albums again, still classics in my mind.

Mike Doughty – Live at Ken’s House (2014)
It’s no secret that I didn’t like Doughty’s collection of re-imagined Soul Coughing tunes; it felt a bit unsavory for one, but more than that it just wasn’t very good, attempting to bury the work of three very talented musicians through an unimaginative array of loud drum machines and garbage samples. Live at Ken’s House is a live (in the studio) take on a bunch of Soul Coughing material, featuring bassist Catherine Popper and drummer Pete Wilhoit, and thankfully he lets them loose and allows them to create the sort of grooves that at least resemble what the originals were all about. It’s so much better than the studio album that it’s downright baffling why this wasn’t the actual release; it retains a lot of the chaotic nature of the originals, throws a number of interesting wrinkles into the mix, and even re-does some songs completely (“Lazybones”, turning into a dreamy chiptune dirge). There are a few missteps – an acoustic version of “Super Bon Bon” is completely pointless, but the remixed version with female hip-hop collective HJA is downright offensive, featuring new lyrics like “got my mind on my money and money on my mind” and throwing in the same bits that worked so poorly on the Super Bon Bon Circles Sleepless album. In fact, the mini-acoustic set is kind of a waste altogether, considering that he already did so many SC songs this way on Water and Washington, and quite frankly I think this new band has a real groove to ’em; both the medleys are a lot of fun, and the snappy takes on “St. Louise is Listening” and “Bus to Beezlebub” are great. In other words they sound like cleaned up, more professional takes on what Soul Coughing did; maybe the soul of it is different (if anything, this whole project highlighted how integral De Gli Antoni and Gabay really were – Steinberg was as well, but Popper isn’t a bad replacement), but they’re 90% of the way there. It’s exactly what I was hoping his “re-imagined” disc would be like.

Mike Doughty – Haughty Melodic (2005)

220px-HaughtyMelodicMike 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.