Photo credit: Keri-Ann Laurito
To my eternal and lasting regret, I never got to see Soul Coughing in concert. I discovered that amazing quartet late, shortly after they disbanded in 1998, which is weird because throughout the ‘90s I was listening to a lot of other bands that shared their stripped-down, groove-obsessed aesthetic—bands like Morphine, Jim’s Big Ego, and G. Love & Special Sauce, back when they still channeling Robert Johnson through white-boy hip-hop. There was a moment there, in the mid-‘90s, when it seemed like all these bands were going to strip away the sludgy guitar bombast of grunge and drag modern rock kicking and screaming into something sparser, smarter and altogether funkier. They were going to replace the fist-pump with the hip-shake, chest-beating with chin-scratching. And we were all going to be so much cooler for it.
Of course none of that happened—Mark Sandman died, Jim Infantino got trapped in folk-pop obscurity, G. Love discovered horn sections and Philly soul, and Soul Coughing…well, I still don’t know exactly why Soul Coughing broke up, but they did, and in retrospect it’s probably just as well, even though I’m still pissed that I never got to see them. Mike Doughty’s oblique lyrics and Mark de Gil Antoni’s offbeat samples, as great as they still sound today, were very much the product of their time, when pop culture solipsisms were all the rage because there really didn’t seem to be much else to talk about except the triumph of American capitalism. At their best, Soul Coughing’s songs functioned like a New York hipster’s funhouse take on modern society, a distorted, diced-up maze of Andrews Sisters samples, James Brown funk riffs, cartoon soundtracks, drum ‘n’ bass beats, fleeting blasts of cityscape noise and techno glitchery, and of course, lyrics about Chocodiles, Casiotones, roller blades and dark corners of the American landscape like Reseda, Wichita and Delancey Street.
After an act like that, you can’t really blame Mike Doughty for taking a different tack, though given the sorry state of popular music these days I still wish he would come out of the D.I.Y. wilderness and release something a bit more substantial. But so far on his solo efforts, Doughty has gone folkie, albeit in an edgy, Ani DiFranco sort of way that wisely dodges any obvious associations with the coffeehouse circuit. Still, instead of spitting brittle beat poet barbs over jazzy downtown funk, Doughty the solo artist strums his guitar, mostly at ballad tempos, and croons moody, introspective little tunes, mostly about girls. It’s weird hearing that unmistakable, raspy voice of his sing lyrics like, “I want to be your absolute ultimate / Want to be your only one now.” What happened to all that ironic detachment? When did the voice of Soul Coughing get all sensitive?
Fortunately, sensitive or not, Doughty is still a great songwriter, as he showed on his first of two solo Los Angeles stops in November. He’s on a self-funded tour to promote a new self-released EP called Rockity Roll and try out material for a new full-length to be released sometime next year, so the emphasis was strongly on solo material—of the 22 songs he blew through (23, if you count the 20-second “Firetruck”), only two were from the Soul Coughing canon, and even those, “True Dreams of Wichita” and “Janine”, still showcase Doughty’s softer side. Wielding a quietly amplified, gently played electric—he never once had to retune—Doughty’s demeanor throughout his set at Largo was relaxed, laid-back, and almost in-jokey, as if he was just jamming for a close group of friends, cheerfully replying to audience backtalk and turning down cheeky requests for old Soul Coughing songs and the inevitable Skynyrd shout-out.
Doughty’s set was on the whole pleasant but unremarkable; you felt more like you were attending a poetry reading than a musical performance, in part because of Largo’s intimate vibe and strict no-talking policy, in part because Doughty’s guitar and voice are both instruments with limited range, making his renditions of his own tunes sound more like unfinished demo versions than full-blown performances. Maybe I’m just a snob from my days hanging around the Boston folk scene in the mid-‘90s, when stunningly gifted singer-guitarists like Martin Sexton, Peter Mulvey, Dar Williams and Deb Pasternak were thick on the ground, but Doughty really needs a band behind him to do his own material justice. He’s engaging but never electrifying, which you can’t help but notice when you’re listening to the guy who used to front one of the best rhythm sections in rock.
Still, much of Doughty’s solo stuff is catchy, smart, and full of the same giddy wordsmithery that made tunes like “Soft Serve” and “Sugar Free Jazz” so instantly engaging. Take these lines from “Rising Sign”:
the dangers of
your rising sign
but I swear
to drink the fuel straight from your lighter
Such vivid but fractured, metaphor-laden imagery is still Doughty’s stock-in-trade, and when he’s at the top of his game, few can equal his skill at crafting it. Even his gentler, more introspective material often employs such left-field wit: “I pledge allegiance to my displacement / My flag of doubt is unfurled” (from “Down on the River by the Sugar Plant”, one of the new songs from Rockity Roll). But just as often now, Doughty’s songs hit home with an emotional directness he rarely displayed in his Soul Coughing days. “My name to you is just another word,” he sings on “The Only Answer”, still growling the line like he tends to growl everything, but sounding more world-weary than cynical. The armor of ironic detachment has come off, and even though I still missed it at times during his Largo set, in the long run it can only bode well for a songwriter who still seems to be a long way from lapsing into sentimentality.
Still, I’m looking forward to hearing Doughty back in the studio and on tour with a full band, instead of toting the heavy load of performing all by his lonesome. Rockity Roll, apart from a few drum machine tracks, is still a stripped-down solo effort, but Doughty promises a proper full-length with a backing band sometime in 2004; a running joke throughout his show at Largo was the album’s title, which he claimed at different times would be either, “For the Love…of My Black Woman” (complete with meaningful pause) or “Girl, I Want to Love You in a Very Special Way”. Whatever it’s called, it should mark an interesting new stage in the development of this gifted, underrated talent.