I feel like we’re kind of at a fork in the road today, with Soul Coughing. Things could go one of two ways. I’m trying by this list to steer them in the more auspicious direction, the one that will be more advantageous for artists and fans alike — proving that what they did weren’t like concept albums or rock operas (the sum total of their studio albums reads Ruby Vroom, Irresistible Bliss, El Oso), but great, catchy and anthemic songs, many of which you’ve probably heard and just weren’t sure of the artist.
Anyway, as I allude to, we’re at the precipice here of Mike Doughty’s Ruby Vroom anniversary tour, where he’s apparently going to traipse around the country playing the album acoustic (isn’t that going to make for some awkwardness when he rocks Chicago?) People are in danger of getting the idea that Ruby Vroom is the be-all end-all of SC albums (it’s not like you ever hear about the other ones in most rock discussions), they’re going to purchase the vinyl, which will make it harder to fast forward to the album’s superior second half, put that one on, hear the lines “Saskatoon is in the room”; “Put the fake goatee on” and “The five percent nation of Casiotone” and decide that this is a mediocre comedy-rock act not even on par with They Might Be Giants, and go lunge for their Death Cab for Cutie records.
I’m here to change that. And yeah, I guess this stuff is meant to be listened to on Spotify, which is sort of like the new update on what Seinfeld once called the library: this pathetic friend that never asks you for any money or any of his or her stuff back. Actually, I ordered Spotify “Premium” about six months ago, and I don’t think I’ve even seen a single charge on my account yet. Spotify does feature Lust in Phaze: The Best of Soul Coughing, which I’d say hits on about two-thirds of their really definitive songs, but could perhaps use a little tweaking too. Really, the Soul Coughing listening experience is as muddled and multifarious as M. Doughty’s imagistic, tripped-out lyrics can be: there’s no one right way to approach it, least of all, in my opinion, in a disposition of vinyl purism and of leaving the stones of their later albums unturned.
25 “Sleepless” (Irresistible Bliss)
Showing off his degree in poetry with a solid vocabulary word “verandah” here (it’s French for balcony, I believe), Doughty delivers a nasal vocal, sounding sort of like he’s just smoked his brains in, about getting stoned and putting off everything the world told you you were supposed to do. You’ll reap the fruits of his laziness all the way through with this bare but funky track and not least a spirited scatting session toward the end, another one of the singer’s trademarks.
24 “Houston” (El Oso)
Almost as if trying to outdo Dumb and Dumber for “most annoying sound in the world,” the band here lays down what all would have to be is a most grating percussion arrangement, albeit one toting some fine melodies and an awesome, gloriously drug-informed chorus: “She’s gone to Houston / Feel like I’m floating in a warm sea / And if she finds out when she comes back / I know that she will leave me”. Amusingly, this is the only song the band played from 1998’s El Oso at their ’96 show in… Houston. Hey, don’t say I never dropped any pointless knowledge on ya.
23 “Misinformed” (El Oso)
“Misinformed” is certainly a funny song and perhaps even more so than my favorite SC selections, makes me wish I was hip to the band while they were still together (afraid I was a little too hooked on Everclear and Third Eye Blind in ’98), because stylistically it’s so glaringly original that given a better fan base it might have spawned a completely new movement on its own, full of Cubist, ironically rendered lyrics and maybe something better than that rock-rap stuff that reared its head a year later.
22 “Maybe I’ll Come down” (El Oso)
Again, drug use plays a key role in the lyrics here, but how ’bout this: it’s often repetition and stasis that drives one to such pleasure seeking, and Doughty even acknowledges the situation in a layered, subtle way in the lyrics: when he sings “I knew the gas was gone / But I had to rev the motor”, the indication of inspiration’s ebb is coupled with the element of this vocal taking the exact melody of one of his former melodies, the chorus to “Soft Serve.” It’s the very nadir of depression and substance abuse… now you know why this is my cloudy-day winter album.
21 “The Incumbent” (El Oso)
M. Doughty, who now goes by Mike Doughty, is currently settled in Memphis (a fact I know only because I follow him on Facebook), and it’s funny to track the course of his career because never have I heard anybody complain about the drawbacks of various cities so much where he’s either been or lived, from mentioning “The hooks of the Chicago man” in “Down to This” to the “Automatic weapons and boundless love” of LA to this tripped-out but bouncy and vibrant album closeur, a denouement to New York and its penchant for producing panic attacks.
20 “White Girl” (Irresistible Bliss)
There’s something just so focused about the petulant rage Doughty is getting across here directed toward the Causasian sector of the fairer sex that is charming to me: it’s like a controlled explosion, a rock/rap ignition inside a full-band car that will go to power your listening experience, whether you’re commiserating or just looking for some entertaining ’90s alt-rock.
19 “Rolling” (El Oso)
“Rolling” kicks off El Oso in the busy, nervous way that would seem the only recourse for the band at this point. So much was happening in music in ’98 with electronica fusing with rock and the mainstream that to issue some shmoozy “ode” of some sorts would have seemed out of place — the band “rolled” along, as it were, in the sort of epicenter of the dance-y styles that were unfolding around this time with the likes of Jamiroquai, Bjork, Moby and on, Doughty’s vocals both texturally awkward and fleetingly understandable to the point where they matter far less than the mix itself. Now you see why the singer eventually came to think of his former band as slavery, and unfurl whole acoustic guitar folk albums at a time, I guess.
18 “Uh, Zoom Zip” (Ruby Vroom)
A staple of their live shows, “Uh, Zoom Zip” trots along with what I’d consider the median Soul Coughing m.o. in their early days — a funky, vaguely jazzy background groove and Doughty’s hip-hop-informed but slightly self-important vocal histrionics. The numeric references come off as clichéd by this point and I can just tell he’s trying to replicate the tone of a poetry slam which I find really gimmicky and annoying, but I suppose it’s a bouncy enough number to get you through a segment of a show. Now, played on acoustic, that might be another matter.
17 “Soundtrack to Mary” (Irresistible Bliss)
I’m not going to get into the x-rated introduction Doughty has for this song in the stage banter of the Houston ’96 show available on Youtube… anyway here’s where we start getting a full waft of the band’s newfound pop sensibility they’d gained on Irresistible Bliss to supplant some of Ruby Vroom’s inane funk. It might still be too stately and erudite to have infiltrated mainstream radio in the mid-’90s but I believe it can still contribute to some satisfying listens today, either in solitary or café settings.
16 “Fully Retractable” (El Oso)
As a math/music nerd, I’ve always been fixated on the intro to this song, whose one-beat is ever elusive and takes until you’re about 40 seconds into the song, it seems, to pin down. I know I went pretty El Oso-heavy on this list and seeping back into this particular cut I don’t regret it at all, as I grace these lyrics which toggle so rapidly between different parts of narratives and between desperation and rock-and-roll euphoria.
15 “Super Bon Bon” (Irresistible Bliss)
Ok, I lied. Soul Coughing are an albums band… because this is the PERFECT album opener, just like “Rolling” would eventually come to be, so defiantly, almost hilariously, loud and boisterous just for the sake of getting across its non-message, a “bon bon” that seems to have taken over the world in vociferous imperialism, a poignant rock-rap pledge to an elevator/mezzanine path through some all-important realm or venue, an absurdist kiss-off to rock lyrics to last forever.
14 “Down to This” (Ruby Vroom)
The lo-fi funk-rock format of Ruby Vroom in general is back in full force for this late-album panorama, as are sampled vocals, something the Coughing would use sparingly and with great care, toward… well, more nonsense, probably. But it’s fun nonsense and don’t skimp on that penultimate chorus of this song, whereon Doughty can be heard uttering boorish monosyllabic grunts to beat the band.
13 “$300” (El Oso)
“$300,” you could almost say, is the session on which all of the Soul Coughing facets converged to form one crystalline gem: programmed drums work in tandem on the same track with live snare fills, velvety and warbly guitar and bass fly like jet fighters through the soundscape’s melodic side, and Doughty’s vocal tone matches the weirdness and psychedelia of his lyrics, brewing up a strange combination of anger and otherworldly confidence which can serve to send lines like “I know you lord are a jealous lord” into this concrete Soul Coughing distinction that makes you realize this album would have really been impossible to follow up, anyway.
12 “Mr. Bitterness” (Ruby Vroom)
I can’t think of this song without having my mind race back to my impression of the ’96 Houston show on Youtube and their performance of this cut which had seen Doughty’s eyes fastened like superglue on to the back wall, at nobody in particular, just looking back with vituperative emotion at something in his own mind, in his own past. Hey, sometimes the saddest song isn’t a slow dance… that’s what this one proves.
11 “So Far I Have Not Found the Science” (El Oso)
This is gonna sound shallow and banal but M. Doughty’s voice just SOUNDS so cool on this song, with that impossibly nasal, unapproachable veneer powering it into the territory of anthemic, along with some great pump-up lyrics about getting through your day in style and being able to take whatever the world throws at you. Brent Dicrescenzo of Pitchfork dissed this album and particularly this song pretty badly… to me they definitely keep it interesting, modifying the second chorus in chord progression and even introducing a new organ tone at that point, and don’t forget Doughty’s unexplainable devolution at the end into the declaration of “Gonna give you most of mine…” So he held something back? Well, if you ask some people, but I sure didn’t notice.
10 “Blame” (El Oso)
As I state earlier, El Oso is my CLOUDY DAY winter album, or album for when we get a slight late-afternoon squall in mid-August, and “Blame” undeniably has the eerie feel necessary for soundtracking such a situation when the weather is so crappy and gloomy but you’re still forced to work at the pace of the world, to paint the dreariness into something bright and passable. The drum beat is galvanizing and ahead-of-its-time, steeped in a dubstep nervousness, and even the preachy lyrics can come across as refreshing sometimes, as if he’s preaching as much to himself as to anybody else.
9 “Supra Genius” (Ruby Vroom)
“Supra Genius” glues the side b streak of mind-blowing songs together with deliberate punctiliousness, letting out this slow-burn drum groove to flank Doughty’s laconic vocals trolling a pretentious know-it-all, whose brain he says is “So dense that light cannot escape from it”, a spoof of course on something being powerful to the point of not absorbing any light. As far as second-person kiss-offs go, then, it does its job fully in the mode of rock and roll catharsis, bringing as the most important spice, perhaps, what is arguably Doughty’s best scat-session of his career, to cap things off at the end.
8 “Blue Eyed Devil” (Ruby Vroom)
This GROOVE is probably the best of the band’s catalogue and should more or less help to explain, on its own, with some slight help from “Screenwriter’s Blues,” why critics would get the inclination to extol this album and bash all the others. “Blue Eyed Devil” is VOLUMINOUS in every sense of the word, featuring a funky bassline from Sebastian Steinberg’s upright, robust and rhythmic drumming courtesy of Yuval Gabay and then one of Doughty’s signature vocal codas toward the end. Each band member was fully invested in this music to where by the time the mix is done, it’s popping with freshness and the sorts of structural adornments that go to make this music classic.
7 “Circles” (El Oso)
This was Mr. Dicrescenzo of Pitchfork’s other hapless victim in his luke-warm El Oso review. It’s also a song I hear with some regularity in places like bars and grocery stores, on satellite radio. All in all, I guess, I can sort of see how some people would think it was poppy and reductive… I guess I just sense the other things that loom large in spite of their surroundings, like the amount of character in Doughty’s voice, the nonsensical, repetitive aspect of the chorus that only this singer could have pulled off and seems like a non-culpa in itself for the song’s simplicity, and of course, the tense, jazzy interlude preceding the final verse, which does mind you feature the lines “Slip into the car / Go driving to the farthest star”.
6 “Screenwriter’s Blues” (Ruby Vroom)
In terms of score and instrumentation, “Screenwriter’s Blues” is undoubtedly a singular achievement in the SC sphere, with the main riff piping in from what sounds like a violin and cello recorded together and then spliced and sampled into these rapid eighth notes. Crazily, for how modern and slick it sounds, this basically IS a jazz song, with an upright bass part bolstering the groove, melodies hugging the blues scale and live drums establishing the beat. But it’s jazz gone haywire, driven to sleeplessness at five a.m., stuck in a city that probably doesn’t appreciate jazz (the mainstream-radio oriented, glamorous Hollywood, adolescent-dominated sectors, that is), almost like the ’90s equivalent of a Kendrick Lamar album, in that particular respect.
5 “St. Louise is Listening” (El Oso)
I’m going to sound like a broken record and probably even summon up some jealousy in some people (myself included), but this vocal is just really freakin’ cool, and that’s a lot of why this is such valuable music even today. As with other curious Soul Coughing instances such as the allusion to someone who’s “All got up in bellhop drag” and that glorious elevator/mezzanine path in that nondescript auditorium, you get the overwhelming sense that the specifics of the lyrics don’t matter nearly as much as just the FACT that they don’t matter, almost as if the default mode of life has become walking around in circles as is illustrated in “Circles.” But musically, it happens to be great, with a vast, orchestral chord progression draping the proceedings and a funky walking bassline keeping things irreverent, so to speak.
4 “Moon Sammy” (Ruby Vroom)
Arguably Doughty’s finest vocal performance of his career, here, both in delivery and lyrics, “Moon Sammy” has the singularly daunting task of following “Screenwriter’s Blues” on Ruby Vroom and does so almost impeccably, with the sort of fast, squirrelly rhythm we’d find later in “Mr. Bitterness,” the type of thing that’s the very opposite of melodrama, making the meaningless something that can be celebrated in the form an examination of a drug-addled humanoid: “Your body says ‘Moon Sammy can you come back’ / Strum it”, painting a picture of the mundane modern setting for such drug use nicely with a strange account of “The drain goes straight into the sea”. Then, with the music itself, we get a rare swathe of organic piano, coming in the form of twisted, Baroque-like upbeat stabs which might call to mind the dark vindication of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man,” updated and made vitally current, again, within the jazz-rock basis of Ruby Vroom at large.
3 “Soft Serve” (Irresistible Bliss)
Spawning the title to the band’s greatest hits album (“lust in phaze”), “Soft Serve” is undeniably a bastion of the band’s catalogue, appearing second on Irresistible Bliss, their brief and sometimes quite rewarding foray into bubble gum pop. Rather than attempt to hash out a gamut of themes which would be applicable to everyone, Doughty is laughing at his own unique struggles in a way that’s immediately anthemic, the “Beads of sweat dripping down on the rent check” forging out a scene of hopelessness but doing so in a way that’s so coy and musically grounded that the end result is of an originality level to end all. Then, finally, you’ve gotta love the scatting session at the end, in true Doughty form, for better or worse adopting multiple takes on the pronunciation of the word “down,” almost as if looking at it from different angles and finding in the entity of “down” an opportunity to at some point pull yourself back up again.
2 “City of Motors” (Ruby Vroom)
I’d be shocked, no, floored, if any single, solitary soul out there liked “City of Motors” the best on Ruby Vroom on first listen. I mean, it’s just WEIRD. It’s a listen so uncomfortable it should almost be accompanied by a stipend paid directly to the person doing the listening. But keep at it. First of all, it’s embedded amidst so many classic gems that making an impression on its part is almost impossible. Then, it’s lyrics make more of an impression than anything, something lots of people might not like but I personally can vibe with myself a little bit, since at least what they’re doing is a sort of local color on urban America and the multifariously lethal results of living around a veritable army of “motors” all the time (the song deals with various fatalities incurred by car explosions, elevators gone awry, etc.) It’s grafted punctiliously and with purpose, too, with a verse segment that in the department of energy slows things down to a crawl, with just a treated guitar, high hat and Doughty’s deadpan singing corralling us into a chorus that is fully funky, with full band Soul Coughing m.o. back and badder than ever, and lyrics which obstinately refuse to congeal to a particular theme or scene, almost as if to reinstate the holistic ludicrousness of the whole thing.
1 “Lazybones” (Irresistible Bliss)
It’s ironic that this album came out the very year Bradley Nowell and his band reached their rapid-fire fame and ruination, because the word “sublime” describes what this song is to a tee: it’s governed by this two-note, octave-interval piano riff and almost no tone throughout the entire track overpowers this piano… it’s like power through restraint all the way through, and definitively so. As is typically the case with this band, the lyrics are unpredictable, never clichéd, never static and not always even understandable. They come to a head during the second verse, anyway, when the singer laments “If I could stay here / Under your light of caress / And not exit to the world / And phoniness / And people / Lazybones”, and then this fictitious character of “Lazybones” is immortalized through this otherworldly “solo” of sorts, following the second verse, which isn’t played by an instrument at all but is rather just comprised of this modulated voice which sort of sounds like if an ignited truck engine had a Rottweiler inside it. “Lazybones” comes fifth on Irresistible Bliss and would prelude the melodic turn Doughty’s solo work would take quite worthily, and in no point in said solo work has the artist cemented something this cinematic and conducive to an unforgettable pop music THEME, possibly because the theme and its musical by products encompass something so powerful that it’s a volatile and dangerous undertaking to handle it more than once.