Wow, the surprises just keep coming: this new Ghost of Vroom album (Ghost of Vroom 1, as opposed to the EP Ghost of Vroom 2, which came out before) is actually a full-length, and it came out a day ahead of schedule, yesterday. Then there’s all these ephemeral, seemingly artistically autonomous sounds clouding the mix on the opener “More Bacon than the Pan Can Handle,” which indeed plays like such a phenomenon of overkill and excess, and indeed, disorientation abounds over this whole development in general.
There’s also the fact that singer Mike Doughty (Soul Coughing) is now a Memphis dude in mind, body and spirit (originally from Fort Knox, Kentucky), and is in fact crafting a “Memphis rock” album here, evident superficially at least from the track two title “Memphis Woofer Rock” and the repetition ad absurdam of said phrase in that song’s chorus. Doughty perceives a zeigteist in Memphis of this music blaring, in all its genre-shifting tension, and this music would more than likely function as adequate for soundtracking some “crusing-the-strip” sessions downtown. He**, it could maybe even play in clubs. No, I’m serious.
But depth is not at a surplus here. Emotional investment in subject matter on the part of the lyricist is not running abnormally high. On the Ghost of Vroom 2 EP, Doughty had a stark, pungent topic to tackle, the pandemic, and with the subsiding of this malady as a discussion point, it becomes clear that the pain and confusion brought from that experience fed his art and infused that project with a bolstered level of meaning. What’s more, the strange uncertainty brought upon by the COVID scare actually, I think, gave the music a sense of being in New York — a vast and overwhelming place in its own right without question and the original home base of Soul Coughing, Mike Doughty’s first band to hit it big.
Now, we are privy to “Memphis Woofer Rock,” and really, it’s truth in advertising. This music should be roughly as important to the nation as Memphis, Tennessee is, in general, which is of course not to disrespect that great, musically rich city, or say that it can’t be enjoyed elsewhere, but that lost is that poignant, psychedelic level of longing, yearning and metaphorical character development you were likely to find in a Soul Coughing song such as “Moon Sammy”; “Soft Serve”; etc. And sorry, but big, thumping hip-hop beats and a constant deluge of noodley sounds emanating from the sampler do not compensate.
Ghost of Vroom, as a collective, is Mike Doughty on vocals and sampler and Andrew “Scrap” Livingston on bass and cello, with Mario Caldato Jr. (known often the Beastie Boys simply as “Mario C” on production). To be honest, though, I don’t really glean any sense of these other men’s input — it’s digital hip-hop music, essentially, rendered almost entirely on sampler not unlike Run-DMC, begging the question of what “production” would even entail. The drums and primary instruments aren’t recorded, that is, but uploaded. Also, I didn’t even notice a bass or cello anywhere on any part of the first two songs, hence sadly making Livingston’s nickname of “Scrap” a bit too appropriate.
“50,000 Bonus Miles” sort of starts to work, at first, with its gritty, dual blues guitar histrionics, until Doughty starts back in with that annoying rap technique that seems like half a case of just the vocalist trying to amuse himself (toward of course the maligned effort of actually amusing anybody else, eventually). In general, one thing plaguing this album is that it’s way too rap-heavy: the rapping was still a novelty and fresh in the ’90s whereas today it comes across as a ploy or tactic, leaving me craving some of the emotional earnestness of the sung Soul Coughing joints like “$300” and “Fully Retractable.” By the time we get any singing on Ghost of Vroom 1, it’s this hapless cover of the old blues standard “Revelator,” which, while also annihilating this music’s similarity to the edgy, profuse Soul Coughing and positioning it as an anticlimactic Mike Doughty solo album with electronic drums, certainly suggests a dearth of ideas feeding into this project. I switch to lead single “I Hear the Ax Swinging” and once again it’s flanked by these big, ham-handed drums, to the point where I just want to retreat, put on a Dismemberment Plan ballad and think about things that come “from where it’s automatic.”