I must admit, at first I didn't much like these guys. After all, Mike Doughty "sings" ("speak sings," really) in an unattractive nasal voice, his quite clever (at times witty, sarcastic, and quite cutting) lyrics can be somewhat repetitive, and synth/sampler dude Mark De Gli Antoni's samples can seem overly "borrowed" (i.e. "Bus To Beelzebub" swiping from Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse"). However, as a Led Zeppelin freak who am I to complain about that last part? Besides, the rhythm section (drummer Yuval Gabay and bassist Sebastian Steinberg) is so fantastically funky and creative (as are Doughty and Antoni in their own way) that I can overlook the less-than-stellar vocals. These guys were briefly hip if never exactly big way back when, and I can certainly see why on the second count, as their "deep slacker jazz" (Doughty's description, not mine) is an all but unclassifiable hybrid. Elements of jazz, funk, hip-hop, pop, and rock are seemingly thrown into a blender (with substantial help from producer Tchad Blake), and what comes out is often fascinating and surprisingly catchy, if in an insubstantial sing-songy type of way. Right away it's obvious just how prescient Doughty's lyrics are (first line: "a man drives a plane, into the Crysler Building" - 7 years before September 11, 2001, no less), while "Sugar Free Jazz" and "True Dreams of Wichita" are surprisingly pretty and melodic. The DEEP bass of "Casiotone Nation" leaves little doubt why Steinberg used to fare so well in "best bassist" polls, and "Blueeyed Devil" is also funky and catchy as all get out. I suppose the middle of the album is less interesting to me, as Ruby Vroom suffers somewhat from its cd-era length given that variety isn't exactly a band strength. Still, they're really good at what they do, and what they do no one else does. Besides, every song here is funky and catchy to some degree; I dig the inventive drum patterns on "City of Motors" and (the danceable) "Uh, Zoom Zip," Doughty's rapid-fire raps on "Uh, Zoom Zip," and the r&b elements of "Down To This." Saving the best for last, the atypical "Janine" is a demo-like finale with a sleepy late night vibe that I just adore, as this band who I had originally written off as "not my thing" have become "my thing" in a big way.
Irresistible Bliss (Warner Brothers ‘96) Rating: A-
After a debut album as original as Ruby Vroom, Irresistible Bliss was bound to seem less impressive to some people, but the songs here are of a similarly high quality, though again it takes some time to fully assimilate them. Gabay dispenses bigger beats this time out as Steinberg's bass still often leads the way, while De Gli Antoni's samples seem both more prominent and more straightforward. Doughty’s ever-quotable (“quantify my luck, I need a mercy fuck”) lyrics are more apt to be playful (math has never been more fun than on “4 Out Of 5”) or nonsensical, but he can also be cutting (“I know you’re dumb as paint”) and shows a more serious side on songs such as “Lazybones” (a spare, haunting tale of addiction). Musically, Soul Coughing offers up hard-edged songs (“Super Bon Bon,” “White Girl”) and lighter respites that offer smoother sailing (“Soft Serve,” “Idiot Kings”), carnival-esque catchiness (“Soundtrack To Mary,” “4 Out Of 5”) along with atmospheric downers (“Lazybones,” “Sleepless”). “Paint” twitches and churns and “How Many Cans?” incorporates industrial touches, while the band at times recalls a weirder Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s still not easy going, and Irresistible Bliss is overly ambitious at times (too many ingredients in the blender), but only Doughty could take back-to-back choruses with words like “disseminate” and “accumulate” and make them so oddly catchy. Really, if you liked Ruby Vroom then I don’t see why you wouldn’t like Irresistible Bliss as well, as Soul Coughing continue to do their own thing regardless of everyone else, with often-inspired results.
El Oso (Warner Brothers ‘98) Rating: A-
After Irresistible Bliss, Mike Doughty recorded a solo album, Skittish, which wasn't released until 2000 and even then only through his Web site (www.superspecialquestions.com), though it was "officially" released attached to his subsequent EP, Rockity Roll, in 2004 (adding five bonus tracks). In the interim Soul Coughing came back with their third and last album, El Oso, which capped off an extremely consistent if disappointingly brief career together. I don't know why this album wasn't better received when it first appeared, for it's arguably the best of the band's albums, though all 3 are of a comparatively high quality. As usual, Steinberg's bass acts as the lead instrument along with Gabay's ever-inventive drum patterns (check out his pots and pans percussion on "Misinformed," for example), while De Gli Antoni's new wavey keyboards (which can be pretty "out there," as evidenced by his surprising synth interjection at 2:08 of "I Miss The Girl") add texture and color as lead guitar is almost an afterthought, and Doughty's sing songy vocal hooks are as offbeat as they are catchy. How songs such as "Rolling" and "Circles" weren't smash hits is anybody's guess, while "Blame," "St. Louise Is Listening," and "$300" are other obvious highlights. The main problems with the album are its overly long 57-minute length and its sequencing (also a problem on Ruby Vroom), as putting slower, dirgey songs such as "Maybe I'll Come Down" and "Houston" back to back smack in the middle of the album probably wasn't such a great idea. In general, the band's energetic up-tempo material is much better than their moodier, slower stuff, and fortunately that's where the focus of El Oso generally lies. Elsewhere, "Pensacola" takes too long to say hello and "The Incumbent" too long to wave goodbye, and again some samples and melodies seem overly borrowed; witness the "Steal Away"-like keyboards (I'm thinking of Robbie Dupree, I believe) on "Blame" and the "Louie Louie"-like (The Kingsmen, of course) riffs on "Fully Retractable." Then again, those are two of the better songs, and flawed though El Oso is, it was yet another strong effort by a consistently entertaining ensemble who broke up when the creative well was far from dry.
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