Tag Archives: Soul Coughing

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


“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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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.

Soul Coughing – Ruby Vroom (1994)

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.

RubyvroomThat 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.