Music Reviews
Rockity Roll

Mike Doughty Rockity Roll

( Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

With his new EP, Mike Doughty has decided to combine two instruments into what some purists might consider an unholy alliance: the acoustic guitar and the drum machine. This could've had disaster written all over it - like some kind of disturbing love child of Elvis Costello and Paula Abdul - but Doughty is able to blend them into a surprisingly stark type of "proto-new wave" folk that broadens his musical horizons while still embracing the heavy reverb and scratchy rhythms that made Skittish such a joy. Recorded as a compliment to his forthcoming solo LP, Rockity Roll collects the usual array of castaway songs that often appear as B-sides or outtakes, with the usual range of success associated with that kind of undertaking.

Ways and Means starts the drum machine front and center, laying out the tone of the EP with an insistent groove and Doughty's trademark syncopated guitar work. 27 Jennifers is a half-hearted reworking of Smofe & Smang's Lisa Ling and Lucy Liu, replacing verses that may or may not have been about the romance between the title characters with less fun lyrics about riding to school with a bus full of girls named Jennifer. While avoiding the pitfalls of name-dropping pop culture icons (ok, Lisa Ling is more C-list celebrity than icon), the song has a modified melody that doesn't quite deliver the energy of the first.

But those are minor complaints, especially since the third track, Down On the River By the Sugar Plant is easily Doughty's most thoughtful and yearning tune since Skittish's Rising Sign. The subtle touches of electronica and a beautiful keyboard line make this song well worth the purchase of the whole album. From there the highlights continue with 40 Grand in the Hole, the only song to eschew the drum machine; instead it relies on quiet acoustic percussion kept deep in the mix and a wonderfully detuned guitar to keep the momentum going. The lyrics are striking, conjuring up images such that they could be about loneliness, drug addiction, student loans or - presumably - all three.

Now if Doughty had stopped here, I would be singing the praises of this record for hours on end. I would have taken out an ad in the local paper Ben Affleck-style and run down the streets of my hometown extolling the considerable talents of a certain Mr. Doughty. But, no. He keeps going, ending this collection with - all solo material considered - the two worst songs of his career. While this stands as testament to his prior work since these songs are by no means heinous, they still bring the EP to a dreary and somewhat boring conclusion, which is a real shame considering how well it begins.

The grating, cheesy pop of Ossining stands as a warning about the depths to which this album could easily have sunk to. And Cash Cow allows a synthesizer to form the basis of the song - a meandering, pointless tune that sounds vaguely like a New Order cover. And not the good early-80's New Order, but the unfortunate Republic-era New Order. But at least in this cut Doughty is able to wrangle a bit of heartfelt emotion into the repetition of "I will offer you a place" as the album fades into silence.

As always though, the heart of Doughty's work resides in the lyrics, and these rarely disappoint. His ruminations on lost love (Sugar Plant) perfectly capture a man wandering the streets with only his memory for company. Loneliness is laid bare on 40 Grand, the words fluctuating beautifully between heartbreaking and hopeful. The rest - from the cheerful Ways and Means to whatever the hell Cash Cow is about - act as textbook complements to their respective musical arrangements, proving again that Doughty remains one of the most vibrant and distinctive voices of the underground music community. Able to provide a fuller sound without sacrificing the powerful intimacy of his prior material, Doughty continues to build a solo resume that may one day prove to be even more impressive than his work with Soul Coughing.