Haughty Melodic is everything you’d expect from Mike Doughty and more: it fuses his post-Soul Coughing singer-songwriter compositional style with the tapestry of brightly colored sounds and snarled grooves of his now-defunct, aesthetically pleasing—in other words, fly—band. In fact, Haughty Melodic is even more ritually adorned than anything Doughty’s been involved in previously, quite the opposite from the stark tones of Skittish and Rockity Roll (his two self-released solo EPs re-released by ATO last year). Through the dozen tracks, he’s joined by saxophone, trombone, congas, banjo, pedal steel, cello, and various keyboard babbles, all of which really flesh out the record into a densely ornamented merry-go-round.
And although Haughty Melodic is a reinforcement of Mike Doughty the Songwriter (as opposed to M. Doughty the Beat-Jivin’ Jazz-Funk-Psych Band Leader), it is still a reminder of his idiosyncratic stature in contemporary American music. Doughty makes music that is impossibly unique. He repeats phrases with brain-numbing syntax and a deadpan cadence (“Lonely / And the only way to beat it is to bat it down”), peppers the peripheral vision of introspective songs with pop culture references as if they were intrinsically unavoidable (“Busting Up a Starbucks” cites James Van Der Beek and Sister Sister, not to mention the titular coffee conglomerate), and proves that he can still navigate about all his wits without the safety net of a category-defying band (“I’m done with elephants and clowns / I want to run away and join the office” he sings in “American Car”).
It’s these eccentricities that help guide Doughty into the slipshod realm of singer-songwriterdom; Haughty Melodic‘s best songs retain a residue of his knotty Beat-speak without reeking of contrivance. “White Lexus”, “American Car”, and “Sunken-Eyed Girl” are all incredibly poignant even if they’re sometimes lyrically obtuse—they rely on atmosphere and feeling as much as conventional song structures (not to mention a sweetly languorous pedal steel accompaniment). “White Lexus” feels isolated, a dead-in-your-tracks realization of helplessness that punctures deep like bad news. “Try to feel nothing on command / When your white Lexus comes / The thrill / Be damned,” Doughty sings over a lovely knee-buckle chord change, adding resignedly, “Damn it to the last damned man”. “American Car” cuts deeper, gliding through like a daydream of Americana, a song so affecting it’s capable of making you forget that Doughty wasn’t a traditional songwriter from the start. The upbeat “Sunken-Eyed Girl” addresses an unacquainted object of affection from close range, advising: “I’m no prize for you / No trophy too / I’ll drag you down / Don’t waste your time”. There’s a fundamental sense of sadness in Doughty’s solo output now that he’s allowed his songwriting to mine more than stream-of-consciousness nuggets from his mind.
Very rarely do the songs stumble; when they do, it’s only because they force Doughty’s style into more ordinary fare unbecoming of him. “Unsingable Name” and “Madeline and Nine” condemn Doughty’s radiant imagery to cookie-cutter balladry and a kind of inspired redundancy, respectively. These two songs aren’t awful by any stretch; it’s just that Doughty is so much more enigmatically talented than they may lead one to believe. He casts aside any suspicion of doubt, however, with nasty little grooves like “Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well” and “Busting Up a Starbucks”—the former radiates with a giant chorus hook and the latter beats a primitive riff into funky submission (also coming as close to the Soul Coughing sound as anything on the record). To say that “Unsingable Name” or “Madeline and Nine” is inferior is merely a matter of perspective: put one next to the record’s true highlights and it’ll surely appear less luminescent. Haughty Melodic also surprises at turns: the up-tempo waltz “Tremendous Brunettes”, a salute to innocent peeping Tom-ery, features a duet vocal from ATO label head Dave Matthews that works better than expected, the two singers’ five-o-clock shadow voices twirling into a gritty whole.
Perhaps the most surprising of all is just how definitively profound Haughty Melodic can be. “In the grey ghost that I call home / In the great stony lonesome I call home,” Doughty sings in the spare “Grey Ghost”. Like a weathered spiritual, the song is an example of repetition as a reinforcement of optimism, a methodical loosening of the baggage of insignificance. Even more spiritually cognizant is “His Truth Is Marching On”, an ominous, piano-bounded groove that strains to see beyond its secular base: “Let me know your enormity and my tinyness / Help me see your infinity and my finiteness”. Deep beneath all its whirling bells and whistles, Haughty Melodic is the work of a man assessing his place in a city of myriad ubiquities, growing up and branching out, struggling not to feel so alone.