Suckerfied Assman Tripping In His Own Dribble: An Appreciation Of Soul Coughing
Just about any band or recording artist who recorded albums for any reasonable period of time has crapped out a less-than-stellar record somewhere along the way. The Beatles had Let it Be. R.E.M. has Monster. Yo La Tengo didn't really know where they were going for their first couple records. The Dead Milkmen had Eat Your Paisley. King Crimson has their entire recorded output. In fact, until 1994, Nick Drake had the only truly perfect discography I'm aware of: his tragically short career resulted in three masterpieces (Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later, and Pink Moon) and a superb, posthumously-released collection of demos and unreleased tracks (Time of No Reply).
Then, with the release of Ruby Vroom, a similarly great-though thus far under appreciated-band arose from New York City to join Drake in the pantheon of the musically flawless. That band, as you have probably gathered if you clicked on the link to get to this article in the first place, was Soul Coughing. Granted, the band wasn't exactly ignored by the world at large: their singles Super Bon Bon and Circles were minor hits in the United States; their music appeared in the films Tommy Boy, Batman and Robin, and The X Files as well as the PlayStation game Gran Turismo 2; they recorded a hilariously repetitive jingle for Baby Gap that was featured in one of that store's many ubiquitous ad campaigns; and the Webtender online drink encyclopedia credits them with inventing the Velvet Crush. (Which is delicious, by the way.)
At any rate, Soul Coughing did achieve a modicum of success-at least in the USA-but their popularity was in no way proportional to the amount of musical greatness they produced. (But then, whose is?) With the recent release of Lust in Phaze, a serviceable greatest hits package, however, you now have a chance to discover the Cough in all their glory if you've missed them the first time around. So let me describe them for you.
It's no exaggeration to say that the band consisted of four of the most talented musicians alive. Drummer Yuval Gabay attacks his kit with an electronica-based sense of unusual rhythms and precision so amazing that you'd swear his beats were laboriously programmed instead of organically beaten out. Bassist Sebastian Steinberg was granted the title of Best Bassist at the Gibson Guitar Awards in 1998 (over Les Claypool and Paul McCartney), and for good reason: on Soul Coughing's three studio albums, he devised roughly 30 of the most memorable basslines ever written, ranging from the maniacal rubber-band flailing of Blame to the foursquare funk of Uh, Zoom Zip. Mark De Gli Antoni is a sample collagist and keyboard player whose technically astounding experimental compositions can stand on their own (on his solo album Horse Tricks or, apparently, his work with mid-'90s collective Rough Assemblage, who I'm unfamiliar with but sound like they'd be somewhat nifty), but whose inspired weirdness with Soul Coughing could evoke any number of moods. And, finally, the band's driving force was guitarist and singer Mike Doughty, whose endearingly nasal speaksing and literate, inventively poetic lyrics would become the band's single most identifiable feature throughout their career.
Doughty has said that the two musical catalysts that inspired him to form Soul Coughing were hip-hop group Arrested Development (remember them?) and underground Tin Pan Alley throwbacks Drink Me. Those might seem like odd, far-flung influences for a band who would be clumped under the "alternative" banner for most of their career, but it makes sense after one listen to Ruby Vroom. Soul Coughing's debut is nothing shy of revelatory; the sounds of four hyperintelligent music geeks running around pop history with a butterfly net, and synthesizing whatever styles and genres they happen to scoop up.
Bus to Beelzebub, for instance, turns a sample from Raymond Scott's Powerhouse into something far creepier, with Steinberg and Gabay laying down a sturdy funk base for Doughty's obtuse rapping ("I feel I must elucidate/I ate the chump with guile/Quadrilateral I was, now I'm warped like a smile"), before the song explodes into jazzy chaos at the last second. Down to This is a funk-rock opus that integrates boogie-woogie and blues samples in a how-did-they-do-that? feat of seamlessness. And True Dreams of Wichita is as close to pure, heartfelt pop as the band would ever get, with a minimal rhythmic backing for a tale of betrayal by one's lover that plays up Doughty's lyrical strengths-namely, his ability to conjure specific moods and images while still leaving their meaning relatively open-ended-and also manages to incorporate a peppy hip-hop bridge. Apart from the album's sluggish sequencing (a problem that can be corrected with a properly programmed CD player), Ruby Vroom is one sustained, rhythmic soufflÃ© of brainy stylistic chaos.
Two years later came Irresistible Bliss, an album that Doughty all but disowns now-I think because he said the songs' production displeased him. And the fact that Ricky Martin's songwriters ripped off the bridge to the superb Super Bon Bon on Martin's Shake Your Bon Bon can't have sat well with him either... (His detailed reasons can evidently be found in the liner notes to Lust in Phaze, which I haven't purchased because I already have all of Soul Coughing's output. Do me a favor and tell me what they say, okay?) Despite Doughty's objections, however, Bliss is just that, from start to finish. The songs are more cohesively structured than before, even when they wobble around woozily (4 Out of 5) or go on unexpected lunatic rampages (Paint, White Girl). De Gli Antoni's samples are more straightforward as well, relying more on atmospheric sound effects than anything-goes gimmickery, but they add indispensable textures to the band's increasingly heavy bottom end.
Lyrically, Irresistible Bliss contains some of Doughty's finest moments, particularly in the unhealthy loneliness on display in Lazybones, a tale of a drug addict who is in love with an alcoholic. In one masterful swoop of a song, Mike displays his gifts for impeccably phrased observations ("The cameraman sways to remember how the eye dances"), phonetically catchy phrases ("When all the world has lain and sank and money sleeps inside the banks"), and moments of emotion during which he manages to describe indescribable feelings ("If I could stay here under your idle caress and not exit to the world and phoniness and people..."). Scorchingly sad but endlessly listenable, Lazybones is a highlight on an album that's basically nothing but highlights.
Feeling drained by the recording process for Bliss, Doughty entered a recording studio in 1996 with much-respected producer Kramer (Galaxie 500, Low) to knock out an album of spare, acoustic solo songs. It's unclear to me whether the album was ever even intended for proper release or if Mike just laid these tracks down as a stress-busting, soul-cleansing personal exercise, but a lid was kept on the record, at any rate. Eventually, though, as with all studio sessions ever recorded, early mixes of these songs were leaked to Napster. (Back before Napster was carpet-bombed by the RIAA.) Encouraged by enthusiastic response to the songs, and bothered somewhat by the dissatisfying mixes, Doughty had the songs properly mastered and pressed, titled the album Skittish, and began selling copies through his website, superspecialquestions.com, in 2000.
In retrospect, it was a smart decision on Doughty's part to wait to release these songs until after Soul Coughing's ultimate dissolution. Though Skittish is as irreproachably wonderful as his full-band work, it's likely that fragile, windswept tunes like The Pink Life and Thank You, Lord, For Sending Me the F Train would have been undeservingly overlooked if released alongside the more ostentatious likes of Irresistible Bliss or its follow-up, El Oso. Stripped of his bandmates' funky ruckus, Doughty's songs are free to dwell on the core of emotional disconnection that had previously been relegated to the background in songs like Soft Serve. The heart-shattering opener The Only Answer, for instance, finds Mike dolefully harmonizing with himself as he grieves over a failed relationship ("My plans spun all around you/Five years in the wrong, I am assured my name to you is just another word"). As understated as Soul Coughing's albums are ass-kickingly bombastic, Skittish is a ceaselessly gripping and gorgeous exploration of urban lonesomeness.
Well, now it seems I have to backtrack a little. 1998 saw the release of what would be Soul Coughing's final and arguably best record, El Oso. Ruby Vroom producer Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, innumerable others) was once again on-hand, and he orchestrates a delicate but winning balance between the multi-layered hyperactivity of Vroom and the more accessible idiosyncrasies of Bliss-often within the same song (case in point: I Miss the Girl). By this point, Gabay's fondness for jungle and drum-n-bass music had come to the forefront in the band's sound, and his seemingly bottomless well of engagingly complex beats is put to excellent use here, from the subtle rolls on the infectiously angry St. Louise is Listening to the explosive throttling on $300. Ferociously memorable (and quotable), El Oso is the perfect culmination of the Cough's eclectic experimentation.
The band hit college-rock radio gold again with Circles this time around-one of the most instantly likeable singles ever written-but tensions within the band, coupled with drug problems and De Gli Antoni's family obligations (summarized by Doughty in The Onion as, "Dude, I've got this kid!"), caused the band to splinter and break apart in early 2000. Since the break-up, De Gli Antoni has worked on a few film scores and Steinberg and Gabay have formed a new band entitled U.V. Ray. Steinberg has also found a regular gig as the bassist for former Crowded House frontman Neil Finn, and can be heard playing with Finn, Lisa Germano, Eddie Vedder, Johnny Marr, and Radiohead's Phil Selway and Ed O'Brien on Finn's fine live disc 7 Worlds Collide. Doughty, though, has been by far the busiest.
In addition to writing occasional columns for the New York Press and the occasional indie-theater play, and running his own aforementioned website, Doughty has started a veritable cottage industry of guest vocal appearances on other artists' albums. In addition to his kicky jazz-noir collaboration with Mitchell Froom, The Bunny (recorded during Soul Coughing's existence and released on Froom's casually terrific 1998 record Dopamine), Mike has also lent his incomparable vocal talents to techno luminary BT (on the dizzying, hilarious drum-and-bass hit Never Gonna Come Back Down from Movement in Still Life) and geek popsters They Might Be Giants (on the electronic spy theme Mr. Xcitement from Mink Car and the infectious, unreleased rocker Your Mom's Alright).
Furthermore, Doughty has also been sticking to a relentless regimen of solo touring, performing acoustic versions of Soul Coughing favorites, his tunes from Skittish, and remarkably affecting unreleased tunes-as well as consistently delivering some of the most hysterically funny stage banter ever bantered. His self-released, limited edition CD Smofe + Smang: Live in Mpls. is an incredible, intimate live document that is worth finding any way you can get it. (I personally recommend the have-an-Internet-music-critic-burn-you-a-copy-in-exchange-for-sexual-favors method, but whatever.)
Though they may not have enjoyed the sort of popularity they deserved, nor inspired the sort of slavish critical following that would be much more appropriate for them than for, say, Wilco, Soul Coughing's discography is a unique treasure that is just aching to be discovered by you. It's hilarious, spooky, danceable, moving, weird, clever, brilliant, and it booms as cool as sugar-free jazz.22 October, 2002 - 23:00 — Chris Willie Williams